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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