Charles Waddell Chesnutt
Ohio Connection: Born in Cleveland
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 20, 1858, Charles Waddell Chesnutt was the son of free blacks who had emigrated from Fayetteville, N.C. When he was eight years old, Chesnutt's parents returned to Fayetteville, where Charles worked part-time in the family grocery store and attended a school founded by the Freedmen's Bureau. In 1872 financial necessity forced him—at fifteen-years of age—to begin a teaching career in Charlotte, N.C. At the age of nineteen, Chesnutt became the assistant principal (and later the principal) of the State Colored Normal School in Fayetteville. It was in 1878 that he married Susan Perry, a Fayetteville schoolteacher. During this period, Chesnutt continued his self-education, studying French, German, rhetoric, music and stenography. Dismayed at how, throughout the South, racial prejudice, conceit and pride had blinded people to true merit, in whomever—white or black—it could be found, Chesnutt moved his family North. After an abortive stay in New York of just a few months, they decided in 1888 to make a home in the city of Chesnutt’s birth—Cleveland.
It was in Cleveland that they encountered boundless opportunities and where Chesnutt strove to exalt his race, gain the applause of the good and the approbation of God. Having passed the bar exam, Chesnutt established one of the city’s leading stenographic business and began to write for publication. Many of his short stories, essays and sketches began to appear in many of the country’s leading magazines and newspapers. Two of his short story anthologies, Conjure Woman and Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, met with both critical and popular acclaim. His novels House Behind the Cedars, Marrow of Tradition, Colonel’s Dream, and Mandy Oxendine reflected his activism and posed a direct challenge to existing sociopolitical conditions. Consequently, they sold in far fewer numbers—so much so that he was forced to abandon his dream of becoming a self-sustaining author.
In 1901, a new opportunity arose that enabled Chesnutt to combine activism and writing together and to accomplish meaningful change on a much grander scale—membership on the General Committee of the NAACP.