Cotter, Joseph Seamon Sr. 1861–1949
Joseph Seamon Cotter Sr. 1861–1949
The lack of an education and a childhood spent in poverty might limit any man’s possibilities later in life. But this is not what happened to Joseph Seamon Cotter, whose singular journey from illegitimacy, ignorance, and poverty demonstrated the determination and strength of this exceptional man. Cotter’s life spanned two centuries of monumental change. His birth in the mid-nineteenth century marked the period in which slavery would end, while his life in the early twentieth century would be focused on creating new opportunities for blacks to succeed in a white-dominated world. Although initially uneducated himself, he would eventually become both an educator and an advocate for education.
Cotter was born on February 2, 1861, in a log cabin just outside Bardstown, Nelson County, Kentucky. He was the son of 65 year-old Micheil J. Cotter, a white man of Scot-Irish descent, and Martha Vaughn, a freeborn black of mixed heritage, who was one of several children born to an African slave mother and an English-Cherokee father. Vaughn had been a bonded servant at Judge John Rowen’s estate, at Federal Hill, Kentucky. But because she was considered a disruptive presence, she was asked to leave the Rowen home, after which, she took a job in the Cotter household. At the time that she became pregnant with her son, Cotter’s mother was a nurse for the Cotter family. After she became pregnant, Vaughn left the Cotter home and returned to her grandfather’s home in Bardstown, near Federal Hill, to have her son. Vaughn was the granddaughter of Daniel Strapp, a tanner, who had purchased his own freedom from slavery in 1829. After Vaughn’s grandfather was free, he continued to work and used the money to purchase freedom for other members of his family. Although Cotter would grow up without a father, his heritage was one of strength and determination.
When Cotter was four months old, mother and son moved a few miles away to Louisville, Kentucky. Cotter’s mother loved books and read a great deal, transferring her love of books to her son. Some of his earliest memories were of his mother singing and telling stories to him, and by the time he was four years old, he could read. It was fortunate that Cotter learned to read so early, since he would be forced to leave school after completing the third grade. Cotter and his mother were poor, and formal education was a luxury. From the time he was nine years old, Cotter worked a succession of odd jobs to help support his mother.
Cotter’s first real job was in a brickyard. Although initially, he did not fit in with the other boys who worked in the yard, Cotter quickly found acceptance through storytelling. In addition to the brickyard, Cotter found other odds jobs, including gathering rags from the city streets, working at a local distillery, and working on the levee. When he was 15 years old, Cotter became the first black resident of a five-year old settlement called Homestead, just south of and outside the city limits of Louisville. His mother continued to live with him, and Cotter continued to work at whatever
At a Glance…
Born on February 2, 1861, in Bardstown, KY; died on March 14, 1949, in Louisville, KY; married Maria F. Cox, 1891; children: Florence (died 1914), Joseph Jr. (died 1919), Leonidas (died 1900).
Career: Cloverport, Kentucky, teacher, 1885-89; Western Colored School, teacher, 1889-93; Paul L. Dunbar School, founder and principal, 1893-1911; poet, author, and playwright, 1895-1949; Samuel Coleridge-Taylor School, principal, 1911-42; Louisville Board of Education, elected member, 1938.
Memberships: Author’s League of America; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Story Tellers league; Kentucky Negro Educational Association (KNEA); Louisville Colored Orphan’s Home Society (past director).
jobs he could find. He even tried his hand at prizefighting as one way to earn money. It was while at this last job that Cotter met William T. Peyton, an important Louisville educator who encouraged young Cotter to continue his education. He was just 22 years old when Cotter changed his future by returning to school. Louisville had just created its first night school for black students, and Cotter joined its first class, for what was to be a rigorous schedule of learning. He quickly completed two five-month sessions of night school, earned his high school diploma, and became qualified to teach school. Much of what Cotter learned was self-taught, in extra hours of reading every evening, thus revealing his commitment to educating himself and to satisfying his thirst for knowledge.
Cotter’s first public teaching job was in a one-room schoolhouse in the Cloverport Public School system, near Louisville. Although this schoolhouse could hardly be labeled a real building, Cotter made the best of educating the children, who sat on boards in an unheated room, with dirt and earth in place of flooring. This job would mark the beginning of a life-long commitment to the education of black children. Teaching was not the only sign of Cotter’s commitment to his community. Although he grew up after the end of slavery, Cotter was always very aware of the issues surrounding segregation and of the dangers that faced the black population as they tried to find a place as free men in a white world. In 1890 Homestead was destroyed by a tornado, which destroyed nearly all the homes and businesses of this area. The following year, as a response that certainly looked ahead to the future, Cotter established a black community in this same location. This new community would be called Parkland. The area eventually became a part of Louisville, but its location as an exclusive black community remained unchanged. Cotter’s expectation was to create a location where blacks could exist in safety, even though that safety came with the price of seclusion.
After two years teaching at the Cloverport school, Cotter began to teach in a nearby private school, before moving to the Louisville Public school system two years later, where he would teach from 1889 until 1942. His first job with the Louisville Public School system was at Western Colored School, which was located in an all black neighborhood, known as the California area of Louisville. Here Cotter would teach for the next four years, from 1889 to 1893. Even after he began to teach, Cotter continued to live with his mother, whom he also helped to support. Once Cotter had secured his financial future with steady employment, he began a very practical search for a wife. He wanted a woman who was older and settled. Two years later, in July of 1891, Cotter married Maria F. Cox, a teacher and principal, who was a few years older than he. The Cotter family grew quickly, when a daughter, Florence Olivia, who was born in 1893.
As evidence of his belief in education as the best method to achieve black success, Cotter founded a school in 1893, the Paul Lawrence Dunbar School, named after the poet and friend. Cotter would serve as principal of this black high school until 1911, when he became the principal of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor School. There is little specific information about either the extent of Cotter’s education—it seems certain that he never attended college or completed a degree-granting program—or his professional life as an educator. Although some writers had felt that Cotter must have attended college, his love of writing and of literature might just have well stemmed from the many books that his mother had read to him as a child. And although Cotter’s contributions to black education are now seen as extremely important, at the time he was working, few details of such work were preserved for later study. What is now certain is that Cotter became a respected writer, although when he first began to write is not clear.
The Cotters welcomed a son, Joseph Seamon Cotter Jr., in 1895, the same year that Cotter’s first book, A Rhyming, was published. This first book was just 32 pages and consisted of a collection of poems that Cotter dedicated to his wife. This first work contained ballads and poems, including several that make effective use of the Italian sonnet formula. One of the poems in this first work was “Description of a Kentucky School House,” which offered a glimpse into the difficulties of teaching at Cloverport, where “the floor and the ground meet.” In a biography published on a website devoted to Kentucky writers, Rebecca Clark noted that in an unpublished May 27, 1933, letter to John Wilson Townsend, which is now stored at the library of Eastern Kentucky University, Cotter admitted that he had destroyed much of the work written for this volume before it was ever published. This admission suggests that Cotter was not easily satisfied with his own poetry.
A second poetry collection, Links to Friendship, was published in 1898. This second book revealed a more experienced and at-ease poet, who could now express himself in eulogies and children’s poems, as well as the familiar ballads and rhymes found in his first book. Included in this second book was a “Sequel to ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin,’” which Cotter would reprint in several of his other books. In a 1974 article on Cotter’s work in Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century, Joan R. Sherman said that Cotter’s sequel was “a lively narrative in thirty stanzas.” This poem was perhaps the poet’s “most original effort,” which also reminded readers of Lewis Carroll’s “lyrical nonsense verse.”
Over the next few years, Cotter faced many changes in his life. His third child, Leonidas, was born in 1899 but died in January of 1900, having survived only nine months. Cotter also continued to write, but in his third book, he moved away from poetry to embrace another genre, drama. Published in 1903, Caleb, the Degenerate, is a four-act play that suggested that blacks should concentrate on learning trades and on goals that improve the black community. Cotter used blank verse for most of his play, although he included some prose and a very small amount of rhyme. The heroes of the play succeed when they adopt the ideology of community improvement. In Black Theater U.S.A, an examination of critical responses to African-American plays, James V. Hatch argues that most critics have failed to understand that Cotter’s play is really two plays with different messages. One message was for a black audience to whom he is showing “a pathway toward economic salvation.” The second message was for a white audience, who “need not fear the black man.” Hatch suggested that those critics who fail to find merit in the play experience a failure to grasp the “subsurface of black experience,” that Cotter hoped both his white and black audience would come to understand.
There is no evidence to support the notion that Cotter’s play was ever staged before the public. It was published, however, and so it may be that its author saw the play’s power as a written document, rather than as spoken words. As only the second play ever published by an American black writer, Caleb, the Degenerate has held an important place in American black literary history. Within a few years, Cotter followed his play with another collection of poems, A White Song and a Black One, in 1909. This volume of work was divided into two sections, as the title suggested, with each section offering poems that explored the different facets of segregation and white-black co-existence.
While Cotter was writing poetry and teaching, his children were facing their own challenges. Florence enrolled at Fisk University after she graduated with honors from Central High School. She graduated from Fisk in June of 1914 and moved to Asheville, North Carolina, to become a teacher, but in December of 1914, Florence finally succumbed to tuberculosis, as did many other black children of the time. Cotter’s son, who had also graduated from Central High School with honors, had been in his second year at Fisk University before the same illness forced him to withdraw in 1912. Joseph Jr. lived the longest of Cotter’s children, becoming a notable poet in his own right, before he, too, succumbed to tuberculosis in 1919. At the time of his death, Joseph Jr. had already published one book of poetry. Although, none of the Cotter children lived past the age of 23, that did not stop Cotter’s efforts to educate the children of other black parents. Cotter was a strong man, who continued to focus on his mission of education, although doing so must have provided a constant reminder of all that he had lost.
Cotter’s fifth book, Negro Tales, was a collection of short stories. This book was the only prose collection that Cotter would publish, but it was not, as its title suggested, simply a compilation of black stories. Nearly half of the stories were not about blacks, but in spite of that limitation, Cotter’s book was notable as one of the few short story collections published by a black writer in the early part of the twentieth century
Even though he was also writing books, Cotter’s devotion to schools and to community continued, especially in his efforts to establish a thriving community in Parkland. Cotter also continued to think that segregation could not be used as an excuse to limit black success. According to a 1989 history of the Parkland area, published in Louisville’s newspaper The Courier-Journal, Cotter envisioned Parkland as a place where blacks might improve themselves. Cotter would later write in a 1916 letter to city officials that the Parkland Improvement Club was an organization of black residents “who were not opposed to segregation” and whose intent was to “improve Parkland by laying cinder walks, having mail boxes put up, streets leveled and other movements.” Cotter also wrote the Parkland Improvement Club’s official creed that stated that the “child is the only force that raises or lowers a community.” Cotter placed his belief in a healthy and secure black future in the education and care of his community’s children. His own career continued to support that belief. The community of Parkland existed until the late 1940s when much of the old community was bricked over, and a new housing development, Cotter Homes, was begun. Cotter’s vision for a thriving black community in Parkland continued in the development named in his honor.
Cotter’s collection of short stories had been judged a mixed success back in 1912, and so it is even more unfortunate that he would not publish another book until 16 years later. It would be 1938 before Cotter’s next book of poetry, Collected Poems of Joseph S. Cotter Sr., was published. Half of the poems included in this collection had appeared in previous books. In some of the new poems, Cotter focused on such things as nature, beauty, and poetry. Nevertheless, the poet did not completely abandon race. He also included a poem about a lynching that was brutally honest in showing the loss that followed such an event. The next year, in 1939, Cotter published another collection of poetry, ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ and Other Poems. As was the case in the previous year’s book, many of the poems had been previously published. Of note was a poem that reflected on his son’s death 20 years earlier, in which Cotter asked, “Is it eternity’s farewell, / Or just a span’s good-bye?” Cotter’s limited literary output in the years following his two oldest children’s deaths was, perhaps, a significant measure of the grief that he felt at their loss.
In 1942 Cotter retired from the Louisville Public School system. He had given 50 years to educating the children of Louisville. To honor him, a school was renamed Cotter/DuValle. The elementary section of the school honored Cotter, while the high school honored a black female principal, Lucy DuValle, a childhood friend of Cotter. Through the years, Cotter had been active in several community organizations. He had served as director of the Louisville Colored Orphans Home Society, and he had been active in the Kentucky Negro Educational Association. In 1947, Cotter published his last book, Negros and Others at Work and Play, a collection of miscellaneous texts, some poetry and some stories and an assortment of difficult-to-categorize short pieces. Cotter died on March 14, 1949, in Louisville, Kentucky. He was 88 years old and had out-lived all of his family.
Cotter left a collection of unpublished writing, some of which has been stored at the Kentucky State Library in the library’s Rare Books Collection. The Joseph S. Cotter Sr. Collection contains handwritten poems, including “Love’s Way,” “The Ways of Black Folk,” and “Spoon River Anthology.” Among the items donated to the Kentucky State Library was a 17-page autobiography, called “Mother & Her Family.” There are also musical scores among the documents that Cotter left behind to tell his story. Still more of Cotter’s work has been stored at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville. Among the 12 items at the Filson are personal letters, poems and songs, and critical reviews of his work that had significance to Cotter. Additional unpublished texts, written between 1920 and 1934 are stored in the Western Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library.
When taken in their entirety, Cotter’s books and unpublished manuscripts reveal not just his own love of literature, but his desire to leave a lasting legacy to inspire and teach black children. But perhaps Cotter’s most important legacy was not to be found in the books that he published, nor in the writings that are stored so carefully. His most important legacy was his vision for an educated black youth. He correctly saw that it would be education and community involvement that would lead to black success. While his later poetry suggested that Cotter acknowledged the evil of segregation, he would not allow racism to offer an excuse for failure. He continued to promote education and responsibility to self-growth and to community until his death. Ultimately, Cotter created an important legacy as a poet, author, and educator, who throughout his life, worked diligently to improve the lives of black children.
A Rhyming, New South Publishing, 1895.
Links of Friendship, Bradley & Gilbert Co., 1898.
Caleb, the Degenerate, Bradley & Gilbert Co., 1903.
A White Song and a Black Song, Bradley & Gilbert Co., 1909; republished by AMS Press, 1975.
Negro Tales, Cosmopolitan Press, 1912; republished by Mnemosyne Publishing, 1969.
Collected Poems of Joseph S. Cutter, Sr, H. Harrison, 1938; republished by Books for Libraries Press, 1971.
Sequel to the “Pied Piper of Hamelin,” and Other Poems, by Joseph S. Cotter, Sr., H. Harrison, 1939.
Negroes and Others at Work and Play, Paebar Co., 1947.
Hatch, James B., ed., Black Theatre, U.S.A.: Forty-Five Plays by Black Americans, Free Press, 1974, pp. 61-99.
Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century, University of Illinois Press, 1971, pp. 164-71.
MELUS, Fall 1978, pp. 37-53.
“A Place in Time: Parkland,” Louiseville Courier-Journal, www.courier-journal.com/reweb/community/placetine/southend-parkland.html (July 9, 2003).
“Joseph S. Cotter,” KYLIT—A site devoted to Kentucky Writers, www.english.eku.edu/SERVICES/KYLIT/COTTER.HTM (July 9, 2003).
—Dr. Sheri Elaine Metzger
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