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Charles was born on June 20, 1858 just before the Civil War. His birthplace was Cleveland, Ohio where both his parents, Andrew Jackson Chesnutt and Ann Maria Sampson, had moved in 1856. Chesnutt and Sampson were both from Fayetteville, North Carolina and were part of a small group of free Blacks who left North Carolina and traveled to Cleveland by wagon train. They were married on July 26, 1857 and Charles was born a year later. He was their first child. Both of Charles' parents were of mixed race, and Charles had such features and skin color that he could have passed for white. His siblings were Lewis, Andrew, a sister who died in infancy, Clara, Mary, and Lillian.
During the war, Charles' father, Andrew Jackson Chesnutt, served in the Union Army as a teamster, and in 1866, after the war, he returned to Fayetteville, North Carolina and opened a grocery store, where Charles worked part-time. Andrew and six other prominent African-Americans purchased land for a school at the cost of $136, and the Freedman's Bureau built Howard School for Black children. Andrew Jackson Chesnutt was elected county justice of the peace and commissioner in 1868 and served for two years. He later farmed after the grocery store failed.
Charles attended Howard School beginning in 1867, and by 1872 he was a pupil-teacher at the school under the supervision of the principal. He became assistant to the principal of Peabody School in Charlotte and taught in rural schools during the summer. In 1877, the North Carolina legislature provided for the establishment of a teacher training institution for Black North Carolinians. Howard School was selected to become the State Colored Normal School, and, at age 19, Charles became a teacher and assistant principal of the State Colored Normal School for Black teachers. The school was renamed Fayetteville State Teachers College in 1939, and the name was changed to Fayetteville State College in 1963. Fayetteville State University was made a constituent institution of The University of North Carolina by legislative act in 1972. The Charles W. Chesnutt Library of Fayetteville State University is named in his honor.
In 1878, Charles married Susan W. Perry, a teacher from Fayetteville. He became principal of the normal school in 1880. Throughout this time, Charles studied independently and with tutors to broaden his education. He studied Latin, German, French, Greek, algebra, and history, and he read widely. He learned shorthand as well. In 1883, Charles resigned the school and moved to New York City, where he worked as a reporter for the Dow, Jones and Company news agency. He also wrote a Wall Street news column for New York Mail and Express. Before the end of the year, he moved to Cleveland and worked in the accounting department of the Nickel Plate Railroad Company. In 1885, he transferred to the legal department as a stenographer.
When Charles was fourteen, he wrote a story on the evil impact of dime novels on youthful minds, which was published in a North Carolina newspaper. At sixteen, he wrote Frisk's First Rat, published in the Fayetteville Educator on March 20, 1875. But his writing career began much later. In December 1885, Charles Chesnutt's short story Uncle Peter's House appeared in the Cleveland News and Herald. Charles was now a writer. The next year, he began publishing stories in Family Fiction. 1887 saw his contributions in humorous magazines Tid-bits and Puck, and in August, The Goophered Grapevine appeared in Atlantic Monthly. The Goophered Grapevine was very well received. Charles continued producing publishable material including essays as well as fiction. Practically all of his work concerned Black society in the United States.
1899 was a pivotal year. His first book was released in March: The Conjure Woman, published by Houghton-Mifflin, was a collection of stories built around Julius McAdoo and his tales of magic among the slaves before the war. Charles had published several of the stories in magazines, and they were very popular. Those stories, one of which being The Goophered Grapevine, were included in the book along with a number of new stories. That same year, his second book was published, Frederick Douglass, a biography from Smith-Maynard, and his third, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, another collection of short stories from Houghton-Mifflin. The Conjure Woman and Frederick Douglass were also published in London that year. His first novel, The House Behind the Cedars was released in 1900. Charles began delivering public lectures and readings in 1899. His literary output continued unabated and he did a southern lecture tour in 1901.
As is the case with all writers, some of Charles' manuscripts were not accepted for publication. Neither of his later novels The Marrow of Tradition (1901) nor The Colonel's Dream (1905) sold well, so three of his novels were not published until the 1990s. The bulk of his literary production was from 1899 through 1905, though he continued to write stories and essays at a reduced rate until his death. In the 1920s the writers of the Harlem Renaissance took the spotlight in Black literature, but Charles Chesnutt was not ignored. The House Behind the Cedars was serialized in the Chicago Defender in 1921, and a film adaptation was released in 1924, produced and directed by Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux released another version under the title Veiled Aristocrats in 1932. Houghton, Mifflin and Company brought out a new edition of The Conjure Woman in 1927. Over his lifetime Charles W. Chesnutt published over one hundred stories, essays, reviews, and poems.
The twentieth century saw a remarkable re-evaluation of Charles Chesnutt as a writer. His popularity declined sharply with publication of The Marrow of Tradition in 1901. White people who enjoyed the humorous and thoughtful short stories about racial issues were not yet ready to face the harsh realities of racism in their own day. For almost half a century, Chesnutt was all but forgotten, but renewed interest produced a reassessment of his place as an American author. A useful survey and analysis of this reassessment is written by Scott McLemee in 2002.
Charles studied law and passed the Ohio bar exam with the highest grade in his group, and he built a successful business as a court reporter. Locally, he was active in Cleveland civic affairs. In addition to his interaction with magazine and book editors, he traveled among notable company. He was asked to run for town commissioner in 1880 while he was still with the normal school, but he declined. He and his wife became members of the exclusive Cleveland Social Circle, composed of better educated people of color. In 1889, he began correspondence with George Washington Cable, and was invited to become his secretary, but again he declined. He visited Paris and traveled in England in 1896. He traveled throughout western Europe with his wife in 1912.
After 1905, Charles reduced his literary pace and devoted more time to social and political activity. He was quite involved with both of the leading (and sometimes quarrelling) Black voices of his time. He accepted membership on Booker T. Washington's Committee of Twelve in 1905. He had met Washington during his 1901 southern lecture tour and had contributed an article to the compendium The Negro Problem, which included essays by both Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois. In 1906, Charles addressed the Niagara Movement conference, of which DuBois was founder, and the next year when DuBois helped organize the NAACP, Charles Chesnutt became a member of its General Committee. He was awarded the Springarn Medal by the NAACP in 1928 for "pioneer work as a literary artist depicting the life and struggles of Americans of Negro descent, and for his long and useful career as scholar, worker, and freeman." An analysis of Charles Chesnutt as a Black leader is found here and here.
Charles Chesnutt was very vocal on race issues and often applied his influence where it would make a difference. He persuaded the mayor of Cleveland to help defeat an Ohio bill against interracial marriage in 1913 and in 1917 he enlisted the Chamber of Commerce to have the film The Birth of a Nation banned in Cleveland. He protested a number of key actions that were racist, and once appeared before a Senate committee to speak against a bill. He was elected to the exclusive Rowfort Club, a bibliophile society of Cleveland, in 1910. He had applied in 1902, but was vetoed by some members on racial grounds.
The Chesnutts were associated with the Emanuel Episcopal Church in Cleveland. Charles and Susan Chesnutt had four children: Ethel (1879), Helen (1880), Edwin (1883), and Dorothy (1890). All of them held college degrees. Ethel and Helen were graduates of Smith College in Massachusetts. They attended together and were roommates. Helen also earned a masters degree from Columbia University. Edwin graduated from Harvard University and studied dentistry at Northwestern University - Chicago, and Dorothy graduated from Flora Stone Mather College, Western Reserve University. Ethel taught at Tuskegee, but left Tuskegee in 1902 to marry Edward C. Williams who became a professor at Howard University. Helen and Dorothy taught in the Cleveland public schools, and Dorothy married John G. Slade, a well-known physician. In 1952, Helen published a book about her father, Charles Waddell Chesnutt: Pioneer of the Color Line. Edwin taught at Tuskegee before studying dentistry and opening a practice in Chicago.
Charles Waddell Chesnutt died at home on November 15, 1932 at 74 years old.
Uncle Peter's House, Cleveland News and Herald, December 1885 (story)
Two Wives, New Haven Evening Register, August 13, 1886 (story)
The Goophered Grapevine, Atlantic Monthly, August 1887 (story)
Po Sandy, Atlantic Monthly, May 1888 (story)
What is a White Man, Independent, May 30, 1889 (essay)
The Conjurer's Revenge, Overland Monthly, June 1889 (story)
Dave's Neckliss, Atlantic Monthly, October 1889 (story)
The Sheriff's Children, Independent, November 7, 1889 (story)
Multitude of Counselors, Independent, April 2, 1891 (essay)
A Deep Sleeper, Two Tales, March 1893 (story)
The Wife of His Youth, Atlantic Monthly, July 1898 (story)
Hot-Foot Hannibal, The Atlantic Monthly, January 1899 (story)
The Conjure Woman, Houghton-Mifflin, March 1899 (book: collection of stories) Gutenberg on-line text
The Bouquet, The Atlantic Monthly, 1899 (story)
Frederick Douglass, Smith-Maynard, November 1899 (book: biography) Gutenberg on-line text
The Wife of his Youth and Other Tales of the Color Line, Houghton-Mifflin, November 1899 (book: collection of stories) Gutenberg on-line text
Lonesome Ben, Southern Workman, March 1900 (story)
Tobe's Tribulations, Southern Workman, November 1900 (story)
The Future American, Boston Evening Transcript, August 18-September 1, 1900 (essay in three parts)
The House Behind the Cedars, Houghton-Mifflin, October 1900 (novel) Gutenberg on-line text
The March of Progress, Century, January 1901 (story)
Superstitions and Folk-Lore of the South, Modern Culture, May 1901 (essay)
The Marrow of Tradition, Houghton-Mifflin, October 1901 (novel) Gutenberg on-line text Documenting the South on-line text
The Free Colored People of North Carolina, The Southern Workman, volume 31, number 3, 1902 (essay) University of Virginia on-line text
Disfranchisement of the Negro, in The Negro Problem, 1903 (essay) Gutenberg on-line text
Baxter's Procrustes, Atlantic Monthly, June 1904 (story)
Peonage, or the New Slavery, Voice of the Negro 1, September 1904 (essay)
The Colonel's Dream, Doubleday & Company, September 1905 (novel) Documenting the South on-line text
The Doll, The Crisis, April 1912 (story)
Women's Rights, The Crisis, August 1915 (essay)
The Marked Tree, The Crisis, December 1924-January 1925 (story)
The Negro in Cleveland, Clevelander, November 1930 (essay)
Post Bellum-Pre Harlem, The Colophon, 1931 (essay)
Mandy Oxendine, 1997 (novel)
Paul Marchand, F.M.C., 1999 (novel)
The Quarry, 1999 (novel)
Digital Library of Selected Chesnutt Works (on-line texts of 62 works)
Comprehensive List of Charles W. Chesnutt's Works and Editions
An Excellent Year-by-year Account of Chesnutt's Life
Charles W. Chesnutt Site at Berea
Selected Bibliography on Charles W. Chesnutt
History of Fayetteville State University
The Chesnutt Women
Black History Facts
Charles W. Chesnutt Quotes