JOSEPH SEAMON COTTER, SR. was bom on February 2, 1861, near Bardstown, Kentucky.His father, Micheil J. Cotter, was a sixty-year-old educated white man; his mother, Martha Vaughn, was a freeborn black woman of mixed African, English, and Cherokee heritage and was working for the Cotters as a nurse when she became pregnant. Martha Vaughn moved to Louisville with her son when he was four months old. Although, because of financial difficulties, Cotter's formal education ended when he was eight, his mother had a great love of books and taught Cotter herself. Cotter reportedly got an early start as a writer, creating stories so that the boys and men of the brickyard in which he worked would like him.
Cotter worked in a variety of menial positions until he was twenty-two years old. At that time he met Louisville educator William T. Peyton, who convinced Cotter to give up his latest job (prizefighting) and attend school. Cotter became qualified to teach, and, beginning in 1885, taught at private and public schools in and around Louisville.In 1891 Cotter married Maria F. Cox, a former school principal, and had three children, all of whom died young. His second child, Joseph, Jr., began a career as a poet before dying of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-three.
Cotter published his first collection of poetry, A Rhyming, in 1895, followed by Links of Friendship in 1898. Although initially his works consciously imitated traditional English poetry in both form and content, his later poetry is more contemporary, more topical, and more regional. In 1903 Cotter published Caleb, the Degenerate, a four-act blank verse play espousing Booker T. Washington's philosophy of practical agricultural and industrial training as the surest means of social uplift for black Americans. Cotter continued to explore racial themes in his 1909 collection of poetry A White Song and a Black One. This collection is divided into halves: the first half ( "A White Song") is a general treatment of Southern attitudes, society, and history, and the second half ( "A Black Song") contains a number of dialect poems