CHESNUTT, CHARLES WADDELL (20 June 1858-15 Nov. 1932) was an AFRICAN AMERICAN author and lawyer who dealt with sensitive issues, like race, from an African American point of view. Born in Cleveland to Andrew J. and Maria Chesnutt, the family moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where the Chesnutts had family ties. Charles graduated from Howard School at 16 and additionally studied German, French, and Greek. He taught himself stenography to make a living. Chesnutt became a teacher in black schools in North Carolina, and at 19 was assistant principal of the New Fayetteville Normal School, and later its principal. He kept a journal, from which he would draw for his writing. Chesnutt returned to Cleveland in 1883; he worked as a stenographer for Judge SAMUEL WILLIAMSON and studied law. He was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1887 and served as a court reporter to support his family and writing.

Chesnutt's literature depicted African Americans as fleshed-out human beings instead of stereotypes or subtypes, as was common in contemporary American literature. He attempted to bridge the race gap and raise the issue of civil rights and equal opportunity. In 1887, the Atlantic Monthly published its first Chesnutt story, "The Goophered Grapevine." In 1899, selected stories were published in The Conjure Woman. Another volume of short stories and several novels followed, including The House behind the Cedars (1900), which discussed issues of class, racism, interracial marriage, colorism and stereotyping of African Americans. The novel points out how African Americans often had to blend into White society, which at the time meant 'passing' as White, in order to access opportunities; only a minority could and wanted to do this. Among white audiences, Chesnutt's writings were controversial and eventually became tired. Yet he continued to write and lecture and was active in the Chamber of Commerce.


In 1878, Chesnutt married Susan Perry; they had 4 children: HELEN MARIA CHESNUTT, Ethel, Edwin, and Dorothy. Chesnutt died in Cleveland and was buried in LAKE VIEW CEMETERY.

Charles W. Chestnutt, Aged 25
Charles Waddell Chestnutt, 25. Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery, Sp Coll f 813.49 C42z23.


Black, white and red text reading Western Reserve Historical Society

Finding aid for the Charles W. Chesnutt Papers. WRHS.

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