On the Bardstown, Kentucky plantation where Stephen Collins Foster composed "My Old Kentucky Home", lived a young slave girl in whose soul were interesting melodies of her own. Strong in spirit and dramatic flair, Martha Vaughn faithfully served as the personal maid to Mrs. Rebecca Rowan, mistress of the Old Kentucky Home. Yet her vivid accounts of visions and dramatic recitations of her original stories and plays while she worked, forced plantation owners to send her away concerned that she would disrupt discipline among the other slaves. It's been said that of such mothers are seers and poets born. And so in this instance it proved to be.
Joseph Seamon Cotter was born February 2, 1861 in Nelson County, Kentucky. His father was a prominent citizen of Louisville who was married to Martha by common law. It is claimed that Martha named her son for Joseph, the dreamer of biblical stories in the hope of his becoming great in the service of his people like the Hebrew Joseph. She lived to see her hope fulfilled.
Joseph S. Cotter's formal education was very scant. He attended grammar school through the third grade, but then was forced to leave to help support his mother. He worked at a variety of jobs as a day laborer. He was a teamster, ragpicker, tobacco stemmer, prize fighter, whiskey distiller, and brick hand. Because he was small he was often harassed by the other workers. He was not big or strong enough to fight to gain his dignity, but he won his fellow workers' respect in another way -- by telling them stories.
When he was twenty-two his desire for knowledge became so great that he enrolled in a Louisville night school at the primary level. At the end of just two sessions, because of his hard work, he was evidently deemed ready to teach. This was to be the beginning of 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; belonged to the Negro Educational Association, the NAACP, the Story Tellers League, and the Author's League of America.
Cotter's major fame lies 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. Among his many published books included, A Rhyming (1895), Links of Friendship, (1899), the play, Caleb, the Degenerate (1903), A White Song and a Black One (1909),/ Negro Tales/(1912), and finally Collected Poems (1938).
For an author of such limited schooling, critics suggest that Cotter's writing shows tremendous variety. His poetry could be philosophical speculation, racial protest, cultural tales, moral lessons, or simple reflections on people or places. Sterling A. Brown has divided the poetry during the period in which Cotter wrote into three concerns or styles -- the dialect tradition to which Dunbar belongs, protest poetry where we find W. E. B. Du Bois, and "literary" because it expressed higher sentiments in a more academic and lyrical voice. While Cotter shows evidence of each style, he is primarily known as one of the first poets of racial concern.