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Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr.

(1861—1949)


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(1861–1949), poet, fictionist, educator, and community leader.

Born near Bardstown, Kentucky, Joseph Seamon Cotter had to leave school at age eight to work at a variety of jobs because of family financial exigencies. Cotter had been a precocious child, learning to read at the age of three from a mother who had the gifts, as Cotter wrote later, of “a poet, storyteller, a maker of plays.” When Cotter was twenty-two the prominent Louisville educator William T. Peyton encouraged the promising young man to return to school. After some remediation and two night school sessions, Cotter was able to begin his teaching career. His first Louisville position was at the Western Colored School, where he began in 1889. He went on to a career of more than fifty years as teacher and administrator with the Louisville public schools. In 1891 Cotter married his fellow educator Maria F. Cox, with whom he had three children, including the important poet in his own right Joseph Seamon Cotter, Jr.

Although known in his own time as a prominent educator and African American civic leader, as well as for his prolific authorship in varied genres, today Cotter is remembered primarily for his poetry. In his first collection, A Rhyming (1895), we see the young Cotter experimenting with varied poetic forms, including the traditional ballad and the Italian sonnet. Cotter's second book, Links of Friendship (1898), is another eclectic collection in varied forms that includes a poem on “The Negro's Loyalty” during the Spanish American War, a loyalty unswerving despite “the mob that puts me to the rack.” The clear reference to lynchers who ravaged black America in Cotter's day belies the poet's reputation for silence about such painful American issues. A dialect piece in Links resulted from a visit by Paul Laurence Dunbar to the Cotter family in 1894. The visit instigated several poetic exchanges between Dunbar and Cotter.

Cotter went on to publish three more collections of poetry, including the Collected Poems of Joseph S. Cotter, Sr. (1938) and the Sequel to “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” and Other Poems (1939), whose title poem, a response to Robert Browning's poem “The Pied Piper”, is regarded as among Cotter's finest. Overall, as A. Russell Brooks has noted, Sequel may well be Cotter's most successful book.

Cotter's blank verse four-act play Caleb, the Degenerate (1903), which reflects views of Booker T. Washington, is essentially closet drama, mainly of historical interest, as is the case with his other plays. Cotter's short story collection Negro Tales (1912) has received little attention; several of the stories may merit reappraisal. His pamphlet on the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the Founding of Colored Parkland or “Little Africa (1934) recalls Cotter's leadership in the formation of the Parkland African American community of Louisville in 1891. Cotter's final work, the miscellany Negroes and Others at Work and Play (1947), appeared two years before his death. Overall, it may be said that Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr., provided a sustaining voice during one of the most difficult eras of African American history, and he was a man who backed his words with action in building the African American community.

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Subjects: Literature.


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