Author Charles Waddell Chesnutt at the age of 40. Photo taken by Chesnutt Bros. (Cleveland, Ohio) between 1897 and 1898. From the Cleveland Public Library Image Collection
African American, Literature, Folklore, Activism
Charles Waddell Chesnutt
Charles Chesnutt was an attorney, author and activist who drew on folklore to illuminate the complexities of transitioning into freedom during and after Reconstruction. He is one of the first widely published African American novelists.
Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born in 1858, the son of Andrew Chesnutt and Ann Maria Sampson Chesnutt, free Blacks who had migrated to Cleveland, Ohio from Fayetteville, North Carolina. In 1867, with the possibilities offered by emancipation, the end of the Civil War and the promises of Reconstruction, his family moved back to Fayetteville, where he worked part time to help his parents run a struggling grocery store. Because of the family’s financial insecurity, he, by age 14, began teaching in a community of freed people, at the Howard school (which eventually became an HBCU normal school that evolved into Fayetteville State University) founded by the Freedman’s Bureau during Reconstruction. By 1880, he was principal of the school while continuing to privately study English, classics, languages, and music.
After the dismantlement of Reconstruction and the establishment of Jim Crow, Chestnut married and moved to New York City. Shortly thereafter, he moved his family to Cleveland, where he resided for the rest of his life. After training as a stenographer and attorney, passing the bar exam, he established his own very successful legal stenography business at a time when few Blacks were hired as attorneys in legal firms. He used his legal knowledge to write educational pieces for the NAACP.
One of Chesnutt’s passions was literary writing. Both his first short story, “The Goophered Grapevine,” published in The Atlantic Monthly (1887), and his first collection of short stories, The Conjure Woman (1899), drew on the folklore, language, and beliefs of Black North Carolinians and realistically captured the local details of place. He also artfully wrote about racial identities and multiracial experiences as a Black writer. Because of Chesnutt’s white countenance and his vast knowledge, his writings were accepted for publication as American literature for white readers, an opportunity not available to most Black authors.
Chesnutt tackled the complexities of these experiences, both in the past and in his era, presenting his writings as narratives that not only countered the Southern romantic plantation imagery of the Lost Cause, but also critiqued the dynamics and sensitivities of race and the internalized oppression of colorism and classism within the pre-Civil War free Black community in such works as the collection of short stories, The Wife of His Youth (1898). Over time he drew upon his civil rights activism to tell a fictionalized story in The Marrow of Tradition (1901), set against the 1898 Wilmington, NC massacre —at a time when he could have been killed for doing so. While his white magazine readers rejected being confronted with the violence of racism and colonialism and turned away from purchasing his stories, his writings received renewed interest during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Among Chesnutt’s writing of particular interest to folklorists are:
The Conjure Woman (1899)
The Marrow of Tradition (1901)