Born: February 2, 1861
Died: March 14, 1949
Joseph Seamon Cotter’s life spanned two centuries of monumental change for African Americans — the end of slavery in the 19th century and the long battle for equality in the 20thcentury. The great black historian and author Joseph R. Kerlin said Cotter was “… an Uncle Remus with culture and conscious art.”
Cotter was a highly regarded storyteller, poet, playwright, and educator who extoled the virtues of advancing his race. In her book Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century, Joan R. Sherman wrote that Cotter encouraged the self-help ethic of pride, humility, hard work, education and a positive outlook.
Cotter’s mother, Martha Vaughn, was a literate and religious woman who was born free of mixed blood — half African American and half Native American and English. His father was Michael Cotter, a white man of Scotch-Irish ancestry. Cotter learned to read by age four but dropped out of school after completing the third grade to help support his family.
He had no more formal education until 1883 when, at age 22, he enrolled in a night school for African Americans in Louisville. Cotter attended the school for 10 months, earning his high school diploma and teaching credentials. He continued his education at Indiana University, Kentucky State Industrial College, and Louisville Municipal College. There is no record of him having earned a college diploma, but by 1892 he earned life teaching certificates as a grammar teacher and school principal.
During a career in education that spanned more than 50 years, Cotter served in various teaching and administrative capacities at Western Colored School, Ormsby Avenue Colored School, Eighth Street School, Paul Laurence Dunbar School, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor School in the Louisville area. He founded the Paul Laurence Dunbar School in 1893 and served as principal until 1911. He then accepted an appointment as principal at Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a position he held until 1942. The great black writer Paul Laurence Dunbar is said to have visited Cotter’s family in 1894, which prompted several exchanges of correspondence about poetry and writing.
Cotter married fellow educator Maria F. Cox in 1891 and they had four children: Leonidas, Florence, Olivia, and Joseph Seamon Cotter, Jr., a promising young poet who died at age 23.
Cotter’s early poems were published in prominent newspapers, including TheCourier-Journalin Louisville. He won a contest sponsored by the newspaper for his poem “The Tragedy of Pete.” Cotter also contributed to various periodicals, including: National Baptist Magazine, Voice of the Negro, Southern Teacher’s Advocate, and Alexander’s Magazine.
Sherman, the historian, wrote that during five decades of writing Cotter’s interests ranged from industrial education to the zoot suit. Cotter experimented with a variety of forms and styles of poetry, including the traditional ballad and various sonnet forms. His subject matter included social satire, historical tribute, racial issues, and philosophy.
Cotter is buried in Louisville’s Greenwood Cemetery.
Caleb, the Degenerate; A Play in Four Acts: A Study of the Types, Customs, and Needs of the American Negro. Louisville, Ky.: Bradley & Gilbert Co., 1903.
Negro Tales. New York: Cosmopolitan Press, 1912. Reprinted, Santa Barbara, CA: Mnemosyne Press, 1969.
A Rhyming. Louisville, Ky.: New South Publishing, Co., 1895. Reprinted, Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2011.
Links of Friendship. Louisville, Ky.: Bradley & Gilbert Co., 1898.
A White Song and a Black One. Louisville, Ky.: Bradley & Gilbert Co., 1909.
Collected Poems. New York: Henry Harrison, 1938.
Sequel to “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” and Other Poems. New York: Henry Harrison, 1939. Santa Clarita, CA: Books for Libraries Press, 1971.
Negroes and Others at Work and Play. New York: Paebar Co., 1947.
A White Song and a Black One. New York: AMS Press, 1975. Reprinted, Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2013.