Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 20, 1858, the first child of Andrew Jackson and Ann Maria Sampson Chesnutt. Charles’ parents had met as members of a northbound wagon train of free people of color leaving Fayetteville, North Carolina, where legal and social restrictions imposed on free blacks had become intolerable. Andrew served with the Union forces as a teamster in the Civil War, after which the family moved back to Fayetteville, where Andrew opened a grocery store with the aid of his father, Waddell Cade, a white man and former slaveholder.
Ann Maria died in 1871, the store failed soon after, and Charles was forced to drop out of the Howard School (which has since evolved into Fayetteville State University) to help support the family. Recognizing Charles’s exceptional ability, his principal immediately hired him as a student-teacher at age fourteen. Chesnutt became the principal of the Howard School at age eighteen, then returned to the newly established State Colored Normal School in Fayetteville, a teacher-training institution for African American students, as a teacher and assistant to the principal.
Chesnutt married Susan Perry, a fellow teacher, in 1878 and became principal of the Normal School in 1880, at the age of twenty-two. Discouraged by the unjust treatment of blacks in the South, by 1883 he had trained himself in stenography well enough to resign from his position and find work in the North. He eventually settled in Cleveland, where he worked as a legal stenographer and studied law, passing the Ohio bar examination in 1887 with the highest scores in his class. Chesnutt capitalized on his stenographic and legal training to set up a court-reporting business, which quickly became profitable.
That same year, he published his first important story, “The Goophered Grapevine,” in the August,...
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Chesnutt failed to achieve his ambitious project of reforming the social consciousness of his white audience, but he nevertheless succeeded in earning national fame and the respect of the literary establishment. As Chesnutt himself said of his literary career, “My books were written, from one point of view, a generation too soon. . . . I was writing against the trend of public opinion on the race question at that particular time.” Later generations of readers have proven more receptive to his insightful analyses of racial injustice. While his success in balancing the demands of entertainment and moral purpose has made the folklore tales of The Conjure Woman his more widely read work, critics have more recently come to appreciate the artistry and power of his later, more realistic short stories and novels.
Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 20, 1858. He attended Cleveland public schools and the Howard School in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Having distinguished himself academically early in his schooling, Chesnutt was taken into the tutelage of two established educators, Robert Harris of the Howard School and his brother, Cicero Harris, of Charlotte, North Carolina. He later succeeded Cicero Harris as principal of the school in Charlotte in 1877 and followed this venture with an appointment to the Normal School in Fayetteville to train teachers for colored schools.
On June 6, 1878, Chesnutt was married to Susan Perry. Shortly after his marriage, he began his training as a stenographer. Even at...
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Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born on June 20, 1858, in Cleveland, Ohio. When he was nine years old, his family moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he spent his youth. Although he was of African American descent, his features barely distinguished him from Caucasians. He learned, however, that family blood was very important in determining a person’s social and economic prospects.
Chesnutt’s mother died in 1871, when he was thirteen years old. Two years later, he left school to take a teaching job, in order to supplement the family income. In 1878, he married Susan Perry, a fellow teacher and daughter of a well-to-do black barber in Fayetteville. He had begun teaching in 1877 at the new State Colored Normal School in Fayetteville, and in 1880 he became principal of that school.
On a job-hunting trip to Washington, D.C., in 1879, Chesnutt was unable to find work. He had been studying stenography and hoped to obtain a job on a newspaper. In 1883, he was able to begin a new career as a stenographer and reporter in New York City, and shortly afterward he moved to Cleveland, where he was first a clerk and then a legal stenographer. Two years later, he began studying law, and in 1887, he passed the Ohio bar examination with the highest grade in his group. He opened his own office as a court reporter in 1888.
Between 1887 and 1899, beginning with the publication of “The Goophered Grapevine” by The Atlantic Monthly, he achieved some success as a short-story writer. In 1899, when Houghton Mifflin published two collections of his short stories, he gave up his profitable business and began writing novels full time—something he had dreamed of doing for many years.
His first published novel, The...
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