Cyrus Colter was a successful attorney who took up writing at the age of fifty and became a major African American author of the second half of the twentieth century. His parents were James Alexander Colter and Ethel Marietta Basset Colter. James Colter held several different jobs while Cyrus was growing up. These jobs included insurance salesman, actor, musician, and regional director of the central Indiana division of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The Colters moved to Greensboro, Indiana, and finally to Youngstown, Ohio, where the young Colter graduated from Rayen Academy. Colter first attended Youngstown University and finished his undergraduate degree at Ohio State University. He earned his law degree from the Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1940 and worked for the Internal Revenue Service as a deputy collector before entering the U.S. Army in 1942. He attained the rank of captain of field artillery and saw combat in Italy during World War II. Colter married Imogene Mackay on January 1, 1943, and they remained married until her death in 1984.
After the war, Colter practiced law in Chicago. Beginning in 1950, he served as a member of the Illinois Commerce Commission for twenty-three years, the longest tenure in the agency’s history. Adlai Stevenson, then governor of Illinois, first appointed him, and both Democrat and Republican governors reappointed him. Colter was also active in Chicago civic groups, including the Board of Governors of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Colter began writing fiction as a weekend hobby. His first short story, “A Chance Meeting,” was published in 1960 in Threshold, a magazine published in Belfast, Ireland. In 1970 The Beach Umbrella, a collection of short stories set in Chicago about African Americans who belong to different economic and social classes, won the University of Iowa School of Letters Award for Short Fiction.
Colter’s stories also appeared in magazines such as Epoch, University of Kansas Review, New Letters, Chicago Review, Northwest Review, Prairie Schooner, and in various anthologies, including The Best Short Stories of Negro Writers (1967), edited by Langston Hughes, and Soon, One Morning: New Writing by American Negroes, 1940-1962 (1963), edited by Herbert Hill.
At an age when most people are contemplating retirement, Colter started a third career when he joined the Northwestern University faculty in 1973 as a professor of creative writing in the African American studies department. He became chair of African American studies in 1975, the first Chester D. Tripp Professor in the Humanities in 1976, and finally professor emeritus in 1979. He did not retire from writing, however. His last novel was published when he was eighty-three years old.
Colter received an honorary degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Public Humanitarian Award for the Humanities in 1989. In 1990 his name was engraved on the frieze of the new Illinois State Public Library,...
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