Say My Name

An African-American Family History

The Cottens

      When I was a young girl, I hated my last name. My aunt Anita would make fun of it and call us "cotton pickers" which had a slave connotation for me. Children at school also called me out of my name as was the way of children. They called me "cottonball" or "cotton candy." Whenever I had to give my surname to someone taking down my personal data, I always had to spell out my name. They invariably spelled it with "o-n" suffix instead of "e-n."

      While researching my ancestors I came across a Cotten that I thought may have been the slave owner of my great-grandfather Napoleon Cotten. His name was Joseph R. Cotten. I once thought the line of Joseph R. Cotten had been traced back to John De Cotentin born in 1042 in Normandy of Europe. I have since found that this was a fabrication of man whose mother's maiden name was Cotten. I suppose he wanted to embroider a prestigious lineage and fabricated a story about De Cotentin fighting with  William the Conqueror at the battle of Hastings in 1066. He went on to say that John was given the land on the Cotentin peninsula in all likelihood because of loyalties to William. This is a lesson for me to be sure everything is collaborated. This person fooled many people. He even forged documents to substantiate his claims.

       It is a small matter to me since I have learned since that while the name may have come from Joseph Cotten of the 1800's, he most likely was not the slave owner. After checking slave records and experts in that field, there are no corresponding persons of my family found in his possession. As stated earlier, Napoleon's surname was Anderson on the 1870 census.

      Napoleon Cotten was the son of Winnie Anderson and a white slave owner, according to oral tradition. The legend continues, according to my aunt Hortense Cotten House, that Winnie's slave owner had two families--one white and one slaves. Whenever the slave owner would go into town with his wife and white children, he would tie up Winnie ( or possibly her mother) to a post to stop her from running away. I haven't learned much more about Napoleon's or Winnie's early life. In 1870, Winnie and her children--Hiram, Elizabeth, Richard and Napoleon--lived with Osco (sic) Dear. In 1880 she is married to Oscar Dear. I have not been able to find any of the other children. I located Napoleon, now with the last name Cotten, on the 1900 Mississippi census. From that census I learned he was  born around 1857 and died some time after the 1910 census.  He is now married and the father of two sons who live with him. One son has died and another, Ammon, is on his own. What has made it difficult to find out more is that the records for Pike County before 1880 were destroyed in a courthouse fire.

      Napoleon's wife Mary was the daughter of Charles Saunders, born in Maryland around 1840, and Rose, born around 1844. Charley was a farmer on the 1880 Pike County Mississippi census. His birthplace is listed as Mississippi. Rose is 36 and her birthplace is listed as Louisiana. They have two children on the 1870 census--Mary, age 6, and Alonzo, age 9. They also have a farm hand living with them by the name of Calvin Guin. They claim they and their children are mulattos. On the 1880 census there are more children--Ninna, Charley, Retta, Dink and James. Mary and Alonzo are not on the 1880 census with them. It is possible that Mary is now married to Napoleon but I have not found them on the census yet.

      Of the four children Mary bore to Napoleon, one died before the 1900 census. The three surviving sons were Ammon, Stanley and Hollis.

      Hollis and Stanley in the kitchen together. A portrait of Ammon.

Hortense remembers her grandmother Mary. She visited Mary a long time ago. She said Mary was a small woman that looked like a native American. Her lasting impression of her is of a very strong and mean woman who made them pray all the time.

      Ouida, my father's oldest sister, also remembers Mary. She told me that she was practically raised by her until she was about seven or eight. She said Mary was nearly "full blooded Indian" but she did not know which tribe. She recalls her grandmother as a very strict and unlearned woman. She believes Mary had a hard time adjusting to living with her daughter-in-laws. She left Gary because she couldn't get along with my grandmother Lula. She then tried to live with her other son Hollis and his wife in Ohio but that turned out to be just as difficult. In the end she lived and died alone.

      Stanley, my grandfather, married Lula Alexander in 1917. They then moved to Ohio along with his brother Hollis. Their first four children were born there. Hortense says the decision to move to Ohio was because of a confrontation with a white man over the theft of Stanley's pants. When he sought justice over the theft, he was threatened with death. He took the threat very seriously. This was Mississippi in the early 20th century after all. Purportedly his wife's brother had been lynched because of racial bigotry. So when threatened he moved far away. He eventually left Ohio and moved to Indiana where he remained for many years until his wife passed away. His remaining three children--Harold Lloyd, Hortense Clara and Ruth Glennie--were born there.

      Stanley found work in the steel mills of Gary. He was well known for his involvement in the steel mill union
"The CIO was established in 1935 to fill a long felt need of the American workers. . .In Gary, 1936, the drive got off to a flying start with a strong volunteer organizing committee under the supervision of Staff Representative Henry J. Johnson.. .Theodore Vaughn, Stanley Cotten, John Spillers...The Time Mill Committee was the most aggressive and militant committee with Vaughn, Mackerl, Cotten and Kimbley, giving leadership in the drive for membership...Vaughn got the first appointment as secretary and was later elected along with Stanley Cotten, vice president..."(excerpt from an article written in 1953 by George P. Kimbley on "The Negro in Organized Labor.")

      Stanley only had an eighth grade education but you would never know it. He constantly told his children "Don't let anyone outknow you. Even if you have to stay up 40 days and 40 nights. Anything that is known is written in a book." He followed his own advice and could speak on any subject with authority. He wasn't a very religious man. Maybe this was in rebellion to his mother's strict beliefs. No doubt she was the reason Stanley knew the bible so well and could quote scriptures easily. He was just more secular in his attitude toward life.

      After his wife of over 50 years died, Stanley remarried. His new wife was a childhood friend. I thought this was very romantic and very adventurous because he was over 80 years old. He even taunted me when he married saying "I beat you,"  referring to the fact he got married a second time before I even married the first time. After he remarried, he moved away from his home of over 40 years to New Orleans, his new wife's hometown. His family was very upset over this marriage. When Hortense expressed her displeasure to him, he was quick to inform her "marriages are not made in heaven. They're earthly."

      My memories of my grandfather are few. He wasn't an everyday presence in our lives. We would usually go to my grandparent's house on Sundays after church and on Christmas. I remember the pungent smell of his cigar smoke.  He never talked hatred about anyone or any group. He believed everyone had a right to say annoying to anyone. And an individual also had the right to respond to criticism verbally but never physically. Physically, my grandfather was a wiry man of very light complexion and an "indian" hook nose. He could talk on any subject and he talked a lot sober. He was not a teetotaler and when he "had a few," he talked even more. He never drove a car a day in his life. He either walked or caught a bus to get where he needed.

      Stanley and Lula raised seven unique and intelligent individuals. The Cotten girls were known for being strong and independent. This was probably due to Stanley's ambitions for his daughters. He wanted them to get a college education so that they would not have to rely on a man. Three of his daughters became teachers--Johnnie Mae taught school in Chicago while Hortense and Glennie taught in Gary.

      Ouida went the more traditional route, marrying Lovelle Brown and staying at home (they lived in the basement of the Cotten's house) to raise nine children. At the age of 50, however, she divorced her husband, went back to school and became an LPN, converted to Catholicism, and moved to Memphis, Tennessee. Whew! Just writing that makes me see how brave she must have been.

      The other children didn't finish college but they were impressive all the same. Pauline was the consummate homemaker and hostess. Harold was a firefighter captain. More will be said about my father in My Story. The photo shows Pappa Cotten and Momma Cotten cooling in front of their home with a friend.

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