‘‘The Sheriff’s Children’’ was one of Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s first pieces of fiction exploring the insidious effect of racism on America. Collected in The Wife of His Youth, and Other Stories of the Color Line eleven years after its initial magazine publication, even at the turn of the century ‘‘The Sheriff’s Children’’ stood out for its indictment of white society in contributing to the problems faced by African Americans.
Many of the other stories in the collection dealt with internal ‘‘African American’’ issues—that is, how African Americans dealt with the problems of race, skin color, and prejudice among themselves. Such stories, including the title story, were generally more well received at the time of the collection’s initial publication, in 1899. Such issues as racial intolerance, racial violence, and particularly racial intermingling did not sit well with the American reading public or its white reviewers. Only a handful of white Americans—though esteemed literary figures—publicly praised Chesnutt’s work. The majority criticized him for bringing such issues as miscegenation to the forefront and implied he would do better to return to the folktales he had previously written to such acclaim.
Chesnutt did not do so; his later works, novels, treated race issues in an even more blatant manner, and in consequence, sold fewer and fewer copies. Six years after The Wife of His Youth had been published, Chesnutt had officially retired from his writing career. After decades of lingering forgotten in archives, his work was rediscovered. Today, Chesnutt is widely praised as one of the most important African-American writers of his period.
The story opens up with a description of its setting, Branson County, North Carolina. Branson County is a typical rural southern community in the post- Civil War era. The Civil War has a pervasive effect on all aspects of present-day life, but in reality, had little physical affect on the area, and its inhabitants were generally apathetic to the defeat of the South.
The biggest town in the county is Troy, a village of 400 or 500 people. Troy is a sleepy town, with little going on, until one day the villagers are shocked by the news of a murder in their midst. The victim is the widely liked Captain Walker. Some of the villagers have seen a ‘‘strange’’ mulatto near Captain Walker’s house the previous night, and it is immediately assumed that the African-American man must have committed the crime. The sheriff organizes a posse and apprehends this man.
When the news of the capture spreads through the town, the men are still not happy. They feel that ‘‘ordinary justice was too slight a punishment for such a crime.’’ The gathered crowd decide to lynch the prisoner, and arrange to meet at five that afternoon to take action.
Close to five, an African American who overheard the talk runs up to the door of Sheriff Campbell’s house to inform him of the planned lynching. The sheriff is an educated, wealthy, and respected man. He vows to go the jail and protect his prisoner, as is his duty. His daughter, Polly, pleads with him not to go, but he remains resolute. He leaves a pistol with his daughter in case anyone disturbs her.
The sheriff has hardly locked the jail when the crowd of men appear. They demand entrance into the jail, but when the sheriff refuses, they say they will bust the door in. The sheriff warns them that if they try, he will do his duty—he will shoot them. The men in the crowd and the sheriff all acknowledge that most likely the prisoner will be found guilty of the murder and be hanged, but the sheriff is determined to fulfill his job. While the leaders converse, the sheriff enters the prisoner’s cell. The scared man pleads with the sheriff to save his life and declares that he didn’t kill the captain. The sheriff unshackles the man and tells him if the men get in the jail, to fight for himself.
The men, surprised at the sheriff’s...
(The entire section is 1,742 words.)