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Greenville writer, community leader, and advocate for women’s education, Sallie Swepson Sims Southall Cotten was born on June 13, 1846, in Lawrenceville, Virginia, to Thomas J. Southall and Susannah Sims. Her Irish ancestors proved active in the founding of the United States of America; one served in the Continental Congress and also signed the Declaration of Independence.
Sallie attended schools in Murfreesboro, North Carolina, while living with her uncle. Eventually, she enrolled at Wesleyan Female College in Macon, Georgia and graduated from Greensboro Female College in 1863. During the Civil War, she served as a school teacher.
In 1866, Sallie married Robert Randolph Cotten, a Confederate veteran from Edgecombe County, who dreamed of becoming a planter. Eventually, the couple acquired two plantations in Pitt County, N.C., deemed Southwood and Cottendale.
Sallie and Robert parented nine children: Robert Randolph, Jr., Federick, Alla, Bruce, Lyman Atkinson, Sallie, Preston, and Elba, influencing Sallie to organize a school on her plantation. Her school catered to the neighborhood children as well. She performed her necessary domestic duties, remained active in her community, and was a leader in the Episcopal Church.
In 1893, Governor Elias Carr appointed Cotten as one of North Carolina’s managers for the Chicago World’s Fair. Her exhibit included a collection of books written by North Carolina women, winning her the World’s Fair medal and diploma.
Cotten’s travels, in which she met women from all over the country, only increased her interest in women’s rights and status. She was instrumental in the founding of many local clubs and a principal leader in the organization of the North Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs, in which she remained active for twenty-five years and served as the fifth president. She became a writer, poet, and Greenville community leader. She organized the leading ladies in Greenville to form the End of the Century Book Club, to improve the quality of life both at home and in the community. The members of the book club sponsored the first public library in Greenville, which was located in a room in the Masonic Lodge. She also wrote The History of North Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs, 1901-1925 and published The White Doe, a history of the Lost Colony.
Robert Cotten was a member of the General Assembly and helped fight the battle for the establishment of what is now East Carolina University. Mr. and Mrs. Cotten are both buried in Cherry Hill Cemetery, Greenville, North Carolina.
Cotten Residence Hall on the campus of East Carolina is dedicated to Sallie’s honor and is one of two remaining original dorms on campus. It sits along Faculty Way, overlooking the Trustees Fountain. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro also has a residence hall named in her honor.