Carl Cowan was born in Knoxville and lived in Mechanicsville on College Street, near the Knoxville College campus, with his father and mother, Hugh and Maggie, and his younger brother, Clause.
Cowan attended Knoxville College and was active in student civic, social, and athletic organizations. He was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, played halfback on the Knoxville College football team, among other extracurricular pursuits. Cowan became a teacher and coach at Knoxville College in 1926-27, becoming the first paid coach in the Negro Division.
Cowan earned his law degree from Howard University College of Law, Washington, D.C. which led him to his life’s work: using the existing laws to advance the rights of people of color in the United States.
He practiced law in Knox County from 1934 to 1980. He was a member of Knox County Court and was appointed the first African-American Asst. District Attorney in Knox County in 1953. Cowan was the plaintiff’s attorney where he challenged segregation in Knoxville, Clinton, Sweetwater-Madisonville, Johnson City school systems, and the University of Tennessee on behalf of the NAACP. His wife, Esther, an English teacher, was part of the historic desegregation of Austin High School and East High School. Carl Cowan was a close associate of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and was instrumental in the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision that ended the legal racial segregation of the public schools in America.
After retirement, Cowan continued to be active in professional, social and civic organizations. He served in TVA, the Knoxville College board of trustees, the Knox County Draft Board, the Republican Primary Board, and the Shiloh Presbyterian Board of Trustees.
Cowan received the Meritorious Service and Outstanding Service awards from the NAACP, the Whitney Young Freedom Service Award from the Knoxville Area Urban League, and the Brotherhood Award from the Knoxville Round Table of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. In addition, Mr. Cowan was presented with numerous awards recognizing his support of the YMCA, the Girl Scouts, and other groups focusing on youth and athletics.
Carl Cowan was a member of the Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame, the Knoxville College Hall of Fame, and was honored by Knoxville College with a Recognition Day and the State of Tennessee Joint House Resolution for his commitment to improving the general welfare of minority groups in Tennessee.