Mae Virginia Cowdery

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Mae Virginia Cowdery (January 10, 1909 – 1953) was an African-American poet based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is considered part of the wide-ranging artistic efforts inspired by the Harlem Renaissance in New York City.[1]


Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1909, Mae Virginia Cowdery was the only child of parents who were upwardly mobile; her mother was a social worker, a new field developing in the cities, and an assistant director of the Bureau for Colored Children (later the Bureau for Child Care); her father Lemuel Cowdery was a caterer and United States postal worker.[2] Cowdery discovered her talent for poetry as a child. She attended the Philadelphia High School for Girls, the prestigious academic high school, and Pratt Institute in New York.

While still in high school, Cowdery published three poems in 1927 in Black Opals, the new literary journal founded that year.[2] It was co-founded in 1927 by Arthur Fauset, a folklorist and teacher, and Nellie Rathbone Bright, a teacher and poet who later published four novels. They were part of a literary and intellectual group in Philadelphia who also became known as the Black Opals.

Cowdery's poem in the first issue, as well as one of Bright's, were among pieces to win praise by Countee Cullen, the new literary editor of Opportunity, a larger journal based in Harlem, New York. Groups such as the Black Opals were being founded in other East Coast cities, such as Washington, DC and Boston, where there was considerable intellectual excitement.[3] The group did not succeed in building a large enough audience for the journal, and published it only into 1928.[1][4]

Cowdery won first prize in a 1927 poetry contest from The Crisis for her poem "Longings;" another poem won the Krigwa Prize.[5] She went to New York in order to attend Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and frequented night places in Greenwich Village.[2] During the late 1920s, she established her reputation by publishing in journals, magazines and anthologies. She did not publish her own collection of poetry until her book We Lift Our Voices: And Other Poems (1936), but was one of the few African-American women poets in the first half of the 20th century to publish a book of her work. "It was critically well received."[5]

She committed suicide in New York City in 1953 for unknown reasons.[5]


  • We Lift Our Voices: And Other Poems, 1936


  1. ^ a b Kathleen Collins, "Black Opals", Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, 2 volumes, Ed. by Paul Finkelman and Cary Wintz, Psychology Press, 2004, p. 133. ISBN 0203319303, 9780203319307
  2. ^ a b c Maureen Honey (2006). Shadowed Dreams: Women's Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. Rutgers University Press. pp. 51–72. ISBN 978-0-8135-3886-0. Retrieved 21 May 2013.
  3. ^ Elizabeth McHenry, Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies, Duke University Press, 2002, pp. 292-294
  4. ^ Aberjhani, Sandra L. West. Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2003, p. 119
  5. ^ a b c Laura Alexander Harris, "Mae Virginia Cowdery", Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, 2 volumes, Ed. by Paul Finkelman and Cary Wintz, Psychology Press, 2004, pp. 259-260.