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Sat, 02.02.1861

Joseph Seamon Cotter, Poet born

Joseph S. Cotter

*Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr., was born on this date in 1861. He was a Black poet, educator, and playwright.

From an area near Bardstown, in Nelson County Kentucky, his white father, of Scotch-Irish ancestry, was Micheil J. Cotter. His mother, Martha Vaughn Cotter, was black; and the two were never a couple. Young Cotter learned to read at the age of three, but called off his formal education in third grade to work and help his poverty-stricken family. He picked rags as a young boy, and later worked as a teamster, in the distillery and tobacco business. When he was twenty-two, he enrolled in a Louisville night school at the primary level. At the end of just two sessions he was ready to teach.

This began a long career in education, including serving as the principal of S. Coleridge-Taylor School for nearly 50 years. Cotter also played an active role in the business and social life of Louisville, serving as the director of the Louisville Colored Orphan's Home Society. He belonged to the Negro Educational Association, the NAACP, the Story Tellers League, and the Author's League of America. Yet Cotter's major distinction was in his accomplishments as a writer. He was a storyteller, a dramatist, and a poet of many moods and styles.

His early poems were published in the local newspaper, The Courier-Journal, and one poem, The Tragedy of Pete, won first place in an Opportunity prize contest. Cotter married Maria F. Cox, a teacher, on July 22, 1891. They had three children: Leonidas died in 1900; Florence Olivia died in 1914; and, Joseph Seamon Cotter Jr., a noted poet and playwright, died in 1919 of tuberculosis.

Among his other many published books included, A Rhyming (1895), Links of Friendship, (1899), A White Song and a Black One (1909), Negro Tales (1912), and finally Collected Poems (1938). His play Caleb, the Degenerate: A Study of the Types, Customs, and Needs of the American Negro (1901), was the second play ever written by a Black to be published. He also was one of the first published poets who used racial themes. Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr., died on March 14, 1949.


Virginia Commonwealth University,
Sandra L. West.

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Forty-Five Plays by Black Americans 1847-1974.
The Free Press, NY. 1974

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