Tag Archives: Jesse Cosby

Jesse Cosby: African American Square Dance Caller in the 1950s

An article about the Jesse Cosby Neighbourhood Center in Iowa and how it is struggling to stay afloat included a biography of Jessy Cosby that indicates that he was a popular square dance caller in the 1950s.


Jesse Lee Cosby was born Feb. 8, 1907, in Jefferson County, Ala.

At one time during his early life, he was so poor he had to scrounge for food out of garbage cans. He swore he’d better himself someday.

He arrived in Waterloo in 1945 after serving 3 1/2 years with the U.S. Army’s 389th Engineer Service Regiment in Europe during World War II, at the urging of his niece, Phyllis Henderson — mother of Jesse Henderson, the center’s current director. Cosby’s first job was shining shoes in an East Fourth Street barber shop.

At the same time, Cosby organized and directed a junior-senior a cappella choir that performed spirituals, gaining recognition throughout the Midwest.

“He wanted white people to understand the black people better,” a niece, Odie Smith, explained.

One of his regular customers was director of the Waterloo Recreation Commission, who was so impressed by Cosby he offered him a job on the commission.

Talented at many activities, Cosby found himself well suited to the task.

He picked up many new interests, including square dancing. Cosby became a nationally-known square dance caller. Ebony magazine did a feature on his square dance calling. He built a lighted patio in his backyard for spontaneous square dances.

He was so well-respected for his work with youths that, in 1950 he was appointed by Gov. William S. Beardsley to the National White House Conference on Children and Youth in Washington, D.C.

Cosby also directed the a cappella choir of Payne Memorial A.M.E. Church, of which he was a member.

When he died of cancer in 1957, he had been working toward realizing his dream for a neighborhood center in the north part of Waterloo.

In 1966, the Jesse Cosby Neighborhood Center opened. Its longtime home, at 1112 Mobile St., is the former St. Peter Claver Catholic Church. That church, sponsored by neighboring St. Mary’s Catholic Church, had served black Catholics for 25 years until that congregation was merged into St. Mary’s in 1965.

In 1973, Jesse Cosby’s niece, Mary Berdell, became the first African-American to serve on the Waterloo City Council.

I would have loved to hear him call! I wonder if any recordings were ever made, or if the Ebony article can be found and reprinted. I will start to took for it!

Edit 1: The Ebony article appears in the June 1954 issue (Vol. 9 Issue 8, pp. 55, 57-8, 61). I have written to Ebony to see if I can get a copy of the article.