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February 22, 2016

Cyrus Colter, An African American Author

Cyrus Colter, An African American Author

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

Although the Colter family only lived in Noblesville for about 10 years, and Cyrus became famous elsewhere, they had an impact on the community and the community had impact on them.

Cyrus’s father, James Colter, was born in Spencer County, Indiana, in 1874.  He married Mary Francis Williams in 1893, who died in 1903.  Colter moved to Noblesville soon after this and eventually married Ethel Bassett in 1908.  The Bassett family had been residents of Hamilton County for some time and probably still have descendants in the area.  Ethel had gone to Noblesville High School.

James Colter

James Colter

Ethel Colter 1

Ethel Colter

As a regular job, James was a barber, but outside of that, he had quite a diversified life.  He was a correspondent for the Indianapolis Recorder, the Black newspaper of the area, and was known for his oratory and debating skills.  He was a member of the Paul Dunbar Literary Society of Noblesville.  This was a group named for the famous African American poet, novelist, and playwright Paul Laurence Dunbar.  There were other branches of this group around the United States.  The society had a debate an against an Indianapolis club in 1908, in which Colter was assisted by Rev. Barney Stone and Rev. G. F Crossland, a minister for the AME Church[i]

Another job that Colter took on was representing the Dunbar Concert Company in 1913[ii] (which was unrelated to the literary society).  The Dunbar Concert Company was an African American choral group that could be booked to perform in churches.  One performer he worked with was Noble Sissle who later teamed with Eubie Blake to create Broadway musicals.  At one point, Cyrus remembered finding a trunk with costumes and make-up supplies.  He thought his father may have been in minstrel shows, but there is no evidence for that.

Colter family

Colter Family

Cyrus himself was born 1910, followed by his sister Mary in 1915.  He remembered living at 61 West Christian Avenue in a house that may still exist.  Cyrus attended Third Ward School which was about a block from his home.  There is a photo of him in his class with his teacher Miss Wall and he remembered the principal’s name as Lucretia Mott, (her first name was actually Christina).  He remembered quite a bit about his childhood, especially how he enjoyed band concerts on the square.  These would have been by the Noblesville Military Band under the direction of Meade Vestal.


Among other things that Cyrus remembered from his days in Noblesville was his father taking him to a big tent like a circus tent to hear James E. Watson, a famous Hoosier politician. This was probably a 1915 Labor Day Republican rally where several people announced their candidacies.  It was held at the Chautauqua grounds in Noblesville.  Cyrus would later joke about this when he met Dan Quayle in the 1990’s, commenting that his father was a staunch Republican, (while Cyrus had voted for Democrats for most of his life).   Later in 1915, he remembered his father telling him about the death of Booker T. Washington on Nov. 14, and being deeply affected by it.

Cyrus had had one particularly extraordinary memory – a friend convinced him to see a Ku Klux Klan rally.  This would have been just before World War I, when the Klan was on the rise because of the failure of the natural gas industrial boom.  Cyrus remembered them as seeming to be more anti-Catholic, which was true in a way.  They were also anti-immigrant and anti-union, all of which was related to the loss of jobs from closing factories and fear of competition from foreign workers.  Other than this, Cyrus said that he had very little race-related trouble while he lived here.

Cyrus’s life changed when mother died of tuberculosis in 1916.  She is buried in Riverside Cemetery. James Colter took his two young children and moved to Muncie the next year.  Cyrus grew up in Indiana, graduated from college in Ohio, and served in World War II.  His father continued to do civil rights work, including being a regional secretary and national organizer and lecturer for the NAACP, until he died in 1946.

Cyrus eventually moved to Illinois and became involved in law and public service.   He received his real fame when, late in life, he decided to start writing fiction in his spare time.  He became nationally recognized for novels and short stories.  In 1973, Northwestern University asked him to help create the Department of African American studies.

In 1993, when contacted by local historian Patricia Gibbs, he still remembered Noblesville with some fondness and shared many of his memories.   The information that she collected can be found in the vertical file in the Indiana Room at HEPL.  Cyrus Colter died in 2002 and had his obituary in the New York Times.


[i] Indianapolis Recorder, April 18, 1908

[ii] Indianapolis Recorder, May 10, 1913.