*Disclaimer: All research presented in the article was conducted independently by me and was featured in my paper Black Women: Education and Literacy and Pathways to Equality in Gilded Age Pittsburgh, presented at the Pennsylvania Historical Society 2022 Meeting*
We previously learned about Mary Mathilda Ware, one of Pittsburgh's first African American teachers in the public school system. However, when African American parents were dissatisfied with the public school system in Pittsburgh, and its lack of African American teachers that they felt could better empathize with their children, they turned to private or parochial schools like St. Benedict the Moor School. In this article, we examine the life of Sadie Hamilton-Cottam, a Black and Gilded trailblazer.
Sarah Agnes Hamilton was born to John W. Hamilton and Margaret Kady Hamilton on August 27, 1878 (though some records list her birthdate as 1880. She went by the diminutive of Sadie. Her father was a laborer who listed his birthplaces as being in Louisiana, Alabama, and South Carolina, which indicates that he was previously enslaved. Hamilton's mother, Margaret Kady, was an Irish immigrant. Sadie was the second of the couple's two children; her older sister, Ella or Ellen as she liked to be called, was born in 1874.
I have not yet found a marriage record for Sadie's mother and father, but in the 1900 census, the couple contended that they had been married for 28 years, which would have made their marriage year 1872. Sadie's parent's origins and how they met are unclear. However, John's work as a laborer and later a driver and Margaret being an immigrant likely made them the bottom rung in society in late nineteenth-century Pittsburgh. Interracial relationships, even in the North during this period, were not expected, and the couple undoubtedly faced scrutiny.
In 1880, the family lived in Evans Alley, located in Downtown Pittsburgh. John and Margaret would work hard to secure their daughters a decent life. The Hamilton's believed their daughters deserved an education and knew this was the only way to keep them from being forced into domestic work like many African American women at the time. According to the May 29, 1898 edition of the Pittsburgh Press, Sadie was "educated in the city schools." She was strongly connected to St. Benedict the Moor Church in the Hill District, as she was the organist and a choir member. The Rev. T.J. O'Carroll tapped Sadie and another very accomplished young Black woman, Louise Walker, to become the St. Benedict the Moor School's first teachers. These young women had a task before them; not only would they teach, but they were also responsible for bringing students in from the surrounding areas in the Hill. This would have involved convincing students and their parents that Catholic education was comparable to one in public schools.
By 1900, Sadie Hamilton was one of three African American teachers at the St. Benedict Parochial School, which included Louisa Walker and Daisy Good. As a teacher, Hamilton assisted the children in music lessons, performing in plays, and participating in the church bazaars. She and Louisa Walker also took the children on field trips to places throughout the city and beyond.
What was extraordinary about some field trips was that the teachers took Black children to places where society at the time told them they did not belong. In one example, in 1892, Sadie Hamilton accompanied 150 children on a steamboat trip aboard the Iron Queen to Cincinnati and then back to Pittsburgh. St. Benedict the Moor School also held an annual picnic basket lunch at Highland Park in August of 1901.
Sadie A. Hamilton's involvement in education through her
church and her participation in Black social life was pursuant to the New
Black Woman ideals and changed her life trajectory. Hamilton's work in the community, coupled with her work in educating the youth of the Hill District, indicated that she was dedicated to uplift in her community. Hamilton also expressed the importance of education to younger girls in her later endeavors by participating actively in the Tuesday Evening Study Club, which was established at the Wylie Avenue Branch of the Carnegie Library in 1901. The club offered young African American women a chance to explore their intellectual curiosity through reading books ranging from the classics to history and drama and presenting papers on their findings. The young women also explored issues with their city and engaged in conversation on how to serve their community. Sadie served as Vice President during 1904-1905, as President from 1909-1910, and later as Treasurer.
Sadly, Sadie's father, John W. Hamilton, passed away in 1904, and Sadie, her older sister Ella and their mother, Margaret, relocated to 622 Kirkpatrick Street in the Hill District. Margaret Hamilton later died at the age of 67 in 1917. After their parents' deaths, the sisters opened their home to prominent Black professionals who were newly arrived in the city and created networking opportunities among Pittsburgh's Black elite.
Sadie was highly active in organizations that provided an uplift in the Black community in Pittsburgh and remained committed to charitable causes for St. Benedict the Moor School. She also belonged to the Urban League's Orphans Committee. As the chairwoman, she raised money for projects such as a fresh air camp for city youth.
She realized African American children and young people needed to have experiences outside their surroundings to fathom the opportunities available. Sadie and her sister also graced the newspapers for their notable gatherings, such as calico balls, in which Black Pittsburgh elite hobnobbed and contributed to organizations such as the Urban League, the Young Colored Women's Home, and the Davis Home for Colored Children. Sadie was also a member of the Frances Ellen Watkins Harper League, founded by notable Pittsburgh suffragettes, including Rebecca Aldridge.
While Ella married earlier in life, Sadie defied the expectations of women in the Gilded Age. She did not marry Her husband, Dr. John Augustus Cottam, an immigrant from British Guyana until she was 48 years old in 1926. One of the most notable guests at her surprise bridal shower in October of 1926 was Daisy Lampkin, one of Pittsburgh's most famous suffragettes and civil rights activists. Sadie's marriage to Dr. Cottam produced no children, though Sadie became stepmother to Cottam's daughter Esther. Even after marriage, she and her husband lived with her sister Ella and her husband, Charles Wallace, in their childhood home on Kirkpatrick Street.
Sarah "Sadie" Hamilton Cottam died on February 10, 1937, after a bout with uterine cancer. While her story is largely unknown in Pittsburgh, her contributions to educating the children of the Hill District are recognized in the character of the Hill District and in the halls of St. Benedict the Moor School, which is still located in the neighborhood. Sadie is buried in her family plot in Calvary Cemetery in Greenfield.
In examining the legacies of Mathilda Ware and Sadie Hamilton Cottam, their dedication to instructing African American students in Pittsburgh indicates an eagerness to see young men and women overcome the racial and economic disparities that were dealt to them. Through instruction and engaging the students in activities deemed above their class and station in life, the women actively resisted the de facto and covert policies that limited their race. Sadie Hamilton and Mathilda Ware utilized their positions as Black teachers to elevate the social consciousness of their students and communities by showing what was possible through education and engaged activism on behalf of their race.
Special Thanks To Catherine Blauvelt of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Main Campus in Oakland, for finding the Tuesday Evening Study Programs for me!
Next: Dr. Samuel A. Neale- Professor, Activist, and Orator