‘‘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.