The Cyrus Colter Papers, 1892-2002
Collection Number: Colter 95/05
Provenance: Donation of Cyrus Colter, 1995
Size: 10 linear feet (15 archival boxes)
Repository: Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature Carter G. Woodson Regional Library (Chicago Public Library)
9525 S Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60628
Access: No restrictions
Citation: When quoting material from this collection the preferred citation is:
Colter, Cyrus Papers, [Box #, Folder #], Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, Chicago Public Library
Processed by: Mollie Godfrey, October 2005
Cyrus Colter, a distinguished African-American writer, lawyer and professor, was born on January 8, 1910, in Noblesville, IN. Colter was the eldest of two children born to James Alexander Colter and Ethel Marietta Basset Colter, whose families had moved from North Carolina to rural Indiana in the 1830s in search of safe haven. His mother died when he was six years old, and his father worked variously as an insurance salesman, actor, musician and regional director of the Central Indiana division of the NAACP. These jobs took the family from Noblesville to Greensboro, IN, and later to Youngstown, OH, where Colter attended a private school called Rayen Academy. He pursued his undergraduate degree at Youngstown University and Ohio State before moving to Chicago in 1936 to attend the Chicago-Kent College of Law. He received his law degree in 1940 and served a brief stint with the IRS before signing up for military service in 1942. On January 1, 1943, he married Imogene Mackay, a teacher and graduate of Northwestern University. They remained together until her death in 1984.
Colter returned from World War II in 1946 having risen to the rank of captain. He set up a private practice on the South Side of Chicago, where he had served as a board member at the Parkway Community Center and thus become acquainted with many of the writers and intellectuals associated with the Chicago Renaissance. In 1951, Colter was appointed to the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) by Governor Adlai Stevenson. The second black person ever to hold this position, Colter’s twenty-three year tenure – serving under six Governors – became the longest in that agency's history. He was also involved in numerous civic groups in Chicago and served as board member for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Historical Society and Dalkey Archive Press.
In 1960, at the age of fifty, Colter reassessed his life's work and, with the encouragement of his wife, began to write. Colter published his first of many short stories, "A Chance Meeting," in an Irish magazine in 1960. After ten years of publications on a similar scale, Kurt Vonnegut selected Colter to receive the very first University of Iowa Award for Short Fiction for a collection of stories entitled The Beach Umbrella (1970). In the years that followed, Colter published an expanded volume of short stories called The Amoralists and Other Tales (1988) as well as five novels: The Rivers of Eros (1972), The Hippodrome (1973), Night Studies (1979), A Chocolate Soldier (1988), and City of Light (1993). Widely popular and critically praised, his works have been translated into German, Italian, Hungarian, Danish, French, and Japanese.
Colter resigned from the ICC in 1973 in order to accept a professorship in Northwestern University's newly established Department of African-American Studies. A year later, he was named the first Chester D. Tripp Professor of the Humanities, a post he held until his retirement in 1978. Not only was he made chairman of the department, he was also the first African-American to hold an endowed professorship at the school. Colter died at the age of 92 at the Wagner Health Center in Evanston, IL, on April 17, 2002.
Throughout his lifetime, Colter received countless accolades, including an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle in 1977. In addition to the prestigious Iowa Award, Beach Umbrella won two further awards from the Chicago Friends of Literature and the Society of Midland Authors in 1971. Night Studies also won the Carl Sandburg Literary Arts Award from the Friends of the Chicago Public Library in 1980. In 1990, Colter’s name was engraved on the frieze of the new Illinois State Public Library, alongside such esteemed literary figures as Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow and Gwendolyn Brooks. Colter’s lifetime achievements were honored with the first ever TriQuarterly Award in 1991 and in 1998 he was inducted into the Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent.Bibliography
Davis, Thadious M. and Trudier Harris. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955. Ann Arbor, MI: Gale, 1984.
Eifling,Sam. “CYRUS COLTER, 92; Lawyer became author, Northwestern professor.” Chicago Tribune 19 April 2002, North Sports final ed., obituaries: 8.
Henderson, Ashyia N. Contemporary Black Biography, Vol. 36: Profiles from the International Black Community. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2003.
Metzger, Linda. Black Writers: A Selection of Sketches from Contemporary Authors. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1989.
Salzman, Jack, David Lionel Smith and Cornel West. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, Vol. 2. New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1996.
Strauss, Alex and Janet C. Olson. Finding Aid for the Cyrus Colter (1910-2002) Papers, 1935-1995. Northwestern University Archives. February-June 1998. 20 September 2005.Scope and Content
The Cyrus Colter Papers consist mainly of manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, clippings and other printed matter that pertain to Colter’s forty-year career as a writer and educator; a smaller body of material pertains to Colter’s thirty-year legal and political career and his personal life. As the collection originally possessed only the most rudimentary of arrangements, it has been rearranged and divided into twelve series: Manuscripts, Correspondence, Clippings, Serials, Publicity, Teaching Materials, Miscellaneous, Legal Career, Musical Interests, Photographs, Oversized Materials and Memorabilia. Any original order that was disrupted by this reorganization will be noted where relevant, as will the methodology employed to restore materials to a usable arrangement. A small quantity of duplicate materials was discarded.
Another set of Cyrus Colter’s papers is housed in the Northwestern University Archives. These materials will be referred to below where they represent significant gaps in the holdings of this collection.Manuscripts, 1963-1994
The bulk of the Cyrus Colter Papers are made up of a variety of manuscripts, including a number of galleys and proofs, and numerous drafts of Colter’s two final novels, Chocolate Soldier and City of Light. The collection also contains two versions of Rivers of Eros, an early version of Hippodrome, drafts of several short stories, one poem and two reviews (one of Maya Angelou’s All God’s Children Need Walking Shoes and several tortured drafts that review Ralph Ellison’s Going to the Territory). Unfortunately, the collection of Colter’s stories and poetry is incomplete and, aside from one galley, there are no manuscripts of Night Studies. Another significant manuscript collection of Colter’s works – containing two short stories, two unpublished works, the complete Imogene Poems, and further drafts of Chocolate Soldier and City of Light – can be found in the Northwestern University Archives. That archive also contains in its clippings file photocopies of Colter’s short stories as they were originally published. In addition, it appears that at least one manuscript of Night Studies is available in the Alexander Murray Palmer Haley (1921-1992) Papers, 1870-1991, located in the Special Collections of Hoskins Library at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Colter’s manuscripts were originally distributed throughout the collection, though single works were generally grouped together and different drafts divided into separate envelopes. Where multiple drafts existed, their chronological development was identified by comparing them alongside the published version and looking for changes that had been absorbed into subsequent texts. These methods led to the identification of two complete and four largely complete versions of Chocolate Soldier. Although most were undated, one version was sent to (and presumably rejected by) Chicago Review Press (University of Chicago) in 1985, and another sent to New Letters (University of Missouri, Kansas City) in 1986. The book was eventually published by Thunder’s Mouth Press in the summer of 1988. The latest near-complete manuscript in the collection is from January of that year, although there are two pages present from a later manuscript that are nearly identical to the published version. There is reason to believe that the novel was begun prior to the publication of Night Studies in 1979, although it is unknown whether or not the drafts in this collection date back that far.
The manuscripts for City of Light, which was composed during the onset of Colter’s Alzheimer’s disease, posed something of a processing challenge. Pages were distributed throughout the collection, often as chapters but sometimes in groups of no more than five or ten pages. Pages from one version were often removed and turned into pages in a later version, resulting in many gaps, and there were multiple versions of certain chapters while very few versions of others. Some drafts appear to be marked with clearly erroneous dates (such as an early version dated the year of publication), and two drafts feature changes that did not make it into subsequent drafts. The manuscripts have been grouped into the most reasonable order determinable based on pagination, typescript, handwritten changes and the absorption of those changes. Where pages had been amended by stapling new sections on top of old ones, everything has been photocopied and clipped together such that one can track the development. Because whole chapters were often missing, however, it was occasionally impossible to determine whether two chapters were from the same manuscript or only occupied the same relative position in relation to earlier and later manuscripts. The version numbers for this novel are thus estimated to the best of our abilities; everything within a given folder, however, is relatively certain to belong together.
The collection includes six primary versions – or typescripts – of City of Light, along with several alternate versions of some of those typescripts. Versions 1, 2 and 3 are reasonably straightforward, except for the fact that version 2 consists of only chapters 1 and 7; thus, although the typescript is similar and both chapters clearly precede those in version 3, it is not certain that they are, in fact, from the same manuscript. Version 4 refers to an unmarked typescript of which we have only fragments. Version 4a is that typescript with handwritten changes which were then either lost or rejected. Version 4b is the same typescript (version 4) with a different set of handwritten changes; these changes were then absorbed into the typescript of version 5. Version 5a is almost identical to version 5 but with a few handwritten instructions and minor changes that appear to be directed towards Colter’s editor. Version 6 is the published version, featuring changes made by Colter’s editor, where version 6a is a few pages that were rejected and rewritten for that manuscript, and version 6b is a photocopy of version 6 that features a few additional changes (changes that did not make it into the published version).
In addition to these drafts of Colter’s published works, the collection includes twelve journal entry style pages titled “Tomorrowland” and one typed page that could not be identified. It may be worthwhile to compare these pages to the book sketch of Renaissance or the unknown book draft that can be found in the Northwestern University Archives.Correspondence, 1970-1994
This series consists mainly of correspondence to and from Colter’s publishers – Swallow Press/Ohio University Press (1972-1984) and Thunder’s Mouth Press (1988-1993) – and the Robert P. Mills literary agency (1970-1975). Further correspondence with Colter’s publishers can be found in the Northwestern University Archives, while further correspondence with Colter’s literary agent can be found in the Robert Park Mills (1920-1986) Papers, ca. 1961-1983, at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin.
This series also includes correspondence pertaining to awards and events that Colter won or participated in, fan letters, rights requests and rejection letters, and a series of letters from a woman named Patricia B. Gibbs, who took an interest in Colter’s work and did extensive research into his familial background in rural Indiana. The collection also includes correspondence from Nelson Algren, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ossie Davis (and his wife, Ruby Dee), George P. Elliot and Toni Morrison – most of which is written in praise of specific works by Colter. One letter, written by Daniel J. Boorstin, refers to a speech that can be found in the Northwestern University Archives.
All correspondence is filed alphabetically by correspondent. Correspondence that was originally grouped together in single envelopes has been photocopied and filed both as found and within folders organized by correspondent. Any other materials enclosed within letters (such as publicity and photographs) have also been photocopied and stored both with those letters and separately according to their format.Clippings, 1892-1994
The clippings collection, organized by publication, spans the entirety of Colter’s literary career and consists primarily of: reviews of Colter’s works; articles on Colter’s awards or achievements; advertisements for Colter’s books or events; and articles or reviews written by Colter. A small number of clippings pertain to Colter’s publishers and friends, or to his family and hometown of Nobelsville, IN. Further clippings, including photocopies of Colter’s short stories as they were originally published, can be found in the Northwestern University Archives. Otherwise, the two collections likely contain a number of duplicate reviews and articles, as the bulk of the Northwestern clippings collection was compiled independently by the University.
Most of the clippings in this collection were found grouped together, though in no particular order. Those that originally accompanied letters or were within particular serials have been photocopied and added to the clippings file, as well as retained in their original place.Serials, 1959-1999
For the most part, the serials in this collection contain articles or reviews written by or about Colter, all of which have been photocopied and filed as clippings. The exceptions include Chicago History, a publication of the Chicago Historical Society, for which Colter served as board member; Harmony, which represents Colter’s lifelong love of music and involvement with the Orchestral Institute and other like organizations; and TriQuarterly, with which Colter had a long-term literary acquaintance. The remaining serials pertain to Colter’s literary/academic career with the exception of Daily Traffic News, which features an article on Colter’s involvement with the ICC.Publicity, 1970-1992
This series contains a variety of publicity materials pertaining to Colter’s literary career, including: pamphlets, flyers, invitations and programs for events; publisher catalogues, pamphlets and dust jackets; documents pertaining to Colter’s involvement in the Great Black Books Group and the Illinois Art Alliance; and a 1986 version of Colter’s curriculum vita. Several letters pertaining to Colter’s appearance at the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum were removed from their original grouping alongside related publicity materials and filed in the correspondence series under the museum’s name. The remaining materials have been arranged in chronological order to reflect their original grouping by subject or event.Teaching Materials, [?]-1988
Almost all of the teaching materials contained within this collection pertain to Colter’s teaching position in the Fiction Writing program at Columbia College Chicago in 1987 and 1988. One undated document seems to pertain to his earlier position in the African-American Studies department at Northwestern University. All clippings and serials from Northwestern University publications have been filed according to their format. It appears that no further teaching materials can be found in the Northwestern University Archives.Miscellaneous, 1981
This series contains a stage adaptation of Colter’s novel, Hippodrome by G. E. Oscar Griffin, copyrighted 1981. It is unknown whether the play was performed, or whether Colter was involved with or supportive of the adaptation.Legal Career, 1953-2002
This series contains a variety of materials – including manuscripts, correspondence, clippings and awards – that relate to Colter’s legal career and lifelong engagement in commerce and politics, including Colter’s work with the ICC and the Commission on Individual Liberty and Personal Privacy, and his voluntary involvement with the senate’s monopoly cases against the Illinois Bell Company in 1974 and 1978. These materials have been arranged chronologically to reflect their original grouping by subject or event.Musical Interests, 1950-2002
This series consists primarily of programs, catalogues, publicity materials and correspondence pertaining to musical events and associations in which Colter had a lifelong interest and involvement. Two items of particular interest include Colter’s correspondence with E. Norman Staub of the Orchestral Association, in response to the racism of one of the orchestra’s conductors, Georg Solti. Although this correspondence is incomplete, it is known that Colter eventually won his dispute. A letter to the editor on a similar theme can be found in the Chicago Daily News (10 April 1971), located within this collection’s clippings series.Photographs, 1890-1994
This series contains over a hundred photographs that both precede and span Colter’s life. The photographs can be grouped loosely into the following eight subject categories: portraits of Colter; family photos; holiday photos; the Colters at home; the Colters with friends; publicity photos; photos sent by Patricia B. Gibbs; and Illinois Commerce Commission photos.
The family photos include several early photographs of Colter’s parents and grandparents, a number of images of Colter in uniform with a young Imogene, and a beautiful Scurlock photograph of Colter’s sister, Mary Elizabeth, in her wedding dress. Publicity photos include a number of images of Colter with David Ray and Robert Farnsworth at a 1972 literary event at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, as well as a photograph of Colter with Gwendolyn Brooks at the Illinois State Library opening ceremony in 1990. There is also a 1972 photograph of the Colters at Nelson Algren’s home in Chicago, and several of the ICC photos feature Colter alongside Governor William Stratton. Although dates are often uncertain, the portraits appear to span several decades.
Since many of the photographs were undated and unmarked, some investigatory methods were employed to arrive at approximate identifications. For example, the year of a trip to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church was found by checking the day and date on the notice board outside the church in a world atlas. A photo of Colter, speaking at the Palmer House in Chicago, has been tentatively identified as corresponding with the 1964 Conference for the Midwest Association of Railroad and Utilities Commissioners held at that location with which the ICC was involved. The date of Colter’s visit to the Illinois State Library was determined by reference to letters inviting Colter and the other honored writers to the library’s opening ceremony. The photograph of Colter’s maternal grandfather, Reverend Miles Bassett, at home in New Albany, IN, was identified with reference to a portrait in Our Baptist Ministers and Schools, which can be found in the clippings series. All tentative decades were estimated with reference to other photographs and the relative age and appearance of those appearing within. Unfortunately, some locations and friends remain unidentified. Photocopies have been made and left in lieu of any photographs that were removed from letters in order to be placed in this series.Oversized Materials, 1940-1995
In addition to one galley of Night Studies and several photographs that have been separated from their appropriate series due to size constraints, this series contains three audio/visual items – all of which pertain to Colter’s literary career – including a radio adaptation of his first published story, “A Chance Meeting.”Memorabilia, 1927-1999
This series contains: graduation robes; medals, degrees and certificates; travel brochures and keepsakes; and a signed copy of The Near-Johannesburg Boy by Gwendolyn Brooks. The great majority of Colter’s diplomas, certificates, plaques, medals and awards can be found in the Northwestern University Archives.
Series 1: Manuscripts, 1963-1994
Series 2: Correspondence, 1970-1994
Series 3: Clippings, 1892-1994
Series 4: Serials, 1959-1999
Series 5: Publicity, 1970-1992
Series 6: Teaching Materials, [?]-1988
Series 7: Miscellaneous, 1981 and Series 8: Legal Career, 1953-2002
Series 10: Photographs, [?]-1994
Series 11: Oversized Materials, 1940-1995 and Series 12: Memorabilia, 1927-1999