From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

Cowan, Alfred C.

(born: December 1863  -  died: September 9, 1913) 

Alfred C. Cowan was a renowned lawyer in New York. He was born in 1863 in Monticello, KY, the son of Henrietta Moddell and Alfred Cowan, who may have been white. Alfred C. Cowan is listed as mulatto in the U.S. Census. During the U.S. Civil War, his mother fled with him from Kentucky to Columbus, OH [source: "Alfred C. Cowan," Plaindealer (Topeka, KS), 3/22/1901, front page]. Henrietta Moddell may have been enslaved. She died when her son was about 10-years-old; he was then placed with his uncle in Springfield, OH. He attended Whittenburg College (now Whittenburg University) and later was a schoolteacher in Logan County, OH, while also studying law. He worked in the office of Amos Wolfe, Esq. from 1884-1885, then moved to Boston and studied law for one year before opening his practice.

Alfred Cowan was listed as a lawyer in the 1889 Boston city directory; he had graduated from Boston University and later from New York Law School [source: "I Shall Talk to My Own People": the intersectional life and times of Lutie A. Lytle," by T. Y. Henderson. Iowa Law Review, vol. 102, issue 5, pp. 1984-2015. Online]. Cowan was a member of the New York Law School's first commencement, which was held at Carnegie Music Hall in 1892 [source: "Won his degree," Plaindealer (Detroit, Michigan), 6/17/1892, p. 8]. He was admitted to the New York Bar a few months later [source: "Personal and otherwise," Plaindealer (Detroit, Michigan), 9/30/1892, p. 5.].

In New York, Cowan became a well-known lawyer in Brooklyn. He is sometimes mentioned in connection with his wife, Lutie Lytle, an early African American woman lawyer who did not practice law until after her marriage to Alfred. The couple married on January 2, 1901 in Pennsylvania [source: Pennsylvania, County Marriage Records (Ancestry)].

Though much has been written of late about his wife as one of the first few African American women lawyers in the United States, Alfred was a recognized lawyer in his own right, with cases taken all the way to the New York Supreme Court. He was also a politician, serving as president of the Colored Republican Association in New York [source: "Had a noisy conference. Turmoil at the Colored Republican Association's Meeting," The New York Times, 8/30/1891, p. 3]. He was a civil rights activist and spoke out against segregation in public accommodations [source: The Retreats of Reconstruction, by D.E. Goldberg]. A number of Cowan's cases were mentioned in The New York Times, with many more articles about him and his wife in the New York Age, an African American newspaper.

Alfred Cowan's influence reached well beyond New York. Articles about his cases and civil rights efforts were printed in African American newspapers throughout the United States: Freeman in Indianapolis, IN; Colored American in Washington, D.C; Savannah Tribune in Georgia; Plaindealer in Detroit, MI; Cleveland Gazette in Ohio; Plaindealer in Topeka, KS; Richmond Planet in Virginia; and the Washington Bee in Washington, D.C. Some of Cowan's court cases are mentioned below.

In spite of his notoriety, it was not enough for Alfred Cowan to win his 1897 campaign to become the U.S. District Attorney for the Eastern District of New York or his 1905 campaign to become the Deputy Attorney General of New York. During his campaigns, he was not able to secure the backing of white Republicans in New York.

Alfred C. Cowan died unexpectedly from pneumonia on September 8, 1913 while he and his wife were visiting Norfolk, VA [source: Virginia Death Certificate Registered #22435 18154].

For more about Alfred C. Cowan's law cases, see "The colored people of New York ...," Savannah Tribune, 10/19/1895, p. 2; "Alleged real estate fraud," The New York Times, 10/9/1898, p. 3; "A lawyer witness," The New York Times, 11/23/1900, p. 14; "Lawyer's speech an apology," The New York Times, 11/24/1900, p. 16; "Eustace Jeffards, Appellant v. The Brooklyn Heights Railroad Company, Defendant. Alfred C. Cowan, Respondent." Reports of Cases, Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, v. XLIX, 1900, pp. 45-47; "Minnie Johnson, Respondent, v. David Ravitch and Others, Defendants. Alfred C. Cowan, Appellant." Reports of Cases, Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, v. CXIII, 1906, pp. 810-812; Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Alfred C. Cowan. Theodore Roosevelt Papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division, Online at the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University.

Kentucky County & Region

Read about Wayne County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

Kentucky Place (Town or City)

Read about Monticello, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

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“Cowan, Alfred C.,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed July 19, 2024,

Last modified: 2024-01-25 20:34:14