Skip to main content

Colter, Cyrus



The distinguished African-American writer and educator Cyrus Colter was born in Noblesville, Indiana, on January 8, 1910. A recipient of the prestigious University of Iowa School of Letters first prize award for short fiction, Colter published many short stories and poems, as well as six novels, throughout his career. Colter worked for the Illinois Commerce Commission before resigning to take a faculty position at Northwestern in the Department of African-American Studies. He remained at Northwestern until his retirement in 1978. Colter died in 2002.

Colter was one of two children born to James Alexander Colter and Ethel Marietta Basset Colter. His father's various jobs included insurance salesman, actor, musician and regional director of the Central Indiana division of the NAACP, which took the family from Noblesville to Greensboro, Indiana, and later to Youngstown, Ohio. Cyrus Colter graduated from Rayen Academy in Youngstown and pursued his undergraduate degree at Youngstown University (Ohio) and Ohio State. In 1940 he earned a degree from the Chicago-Kent College of Law. On January 1, 1943, he married Imogene Mackay, a teacher, who served as his supporter and critic until her death in 1984.

Colter's early life was marked by his legal and military pursuits. After a brief stint as an agent for the Internal Revenue Agency, Colter served in World War II as a field artillery captain and saw combat in Europe in the Fifth Army under General Mark Clark. In 1946, he returned to civilian life and the practice of law in Chicago. Four years later, Governor Adlai Stevenson appointed him to the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC), where his twenty-three year tenure was the longest in that agency's history.

In 1960, at the age of fifty, Colter reassessed his life's work and began an accelerated reading program that focused on Russian literature. Colter became more and more impressed with the range of characters depicted by Tolstoy, Dostoevski, and Chekhov, and he recognized the deficiency of African-American literature in this regard. When his wife challenged him to address this problem in fiction, Colter began to write. Colter's first short story, “A Chance Meeting,” was published in 1960 in Threshold, a little magazine out of Belfast, Ireland. Ten years later, a collection of his short stories, The Beach Umbrella (1970), won the prestigious University of Iowa School of Letters first prize award for short fiction (chosen by Kurt Vonnegut). In the years that followed, he published countless short stories and poems, and six novels: The Rivers of Eros (1972), The Hippodrome (1973), Night Studies (1979), A Chocolate Soldier (1988), The Amoralists and Other Tales (1988) and City of Light (1993). Now widely read, 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 of creative writing in Northwestern's Department of African-American Studies, then two years old. A year later Colter was named as the first Chester D. Tripp Professor of the Humanities, a post he held until his retirement in 1978. Colter died on April 17, 2002.

Throughout his lifetime, Colter received countless accolades, including an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Illinois (Chicago). One of the highest honors was bestowed in 1990 when Colter's was one of the names engraved on the frieze of the new Illinois State Public Library alongside such Illinois literary figures as Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, Studs Turkel and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Cyrus Colter (1910-2002) Papers

Identifier: 11/3/1/2

The papers of Cyrus Colter (writer and educator; member of the faculty of Northwestern University's Department of African-American Studies) spans the years 1935 to 1995. It consists of biographical material, correspondence, speeches, and publications. The bulk of the collection consists of drafts of Colter's publications, especially his two last novels, A Chocolate Soldier and City of Lights.

Dates: 1935-1995