Son of free blacks from Fayetteville, North Carolina, Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio. He lived in Cleveland for eight years until his family returned to North Carolina and made a living operating a grocery store. Chesnutt worked part time in the store to help out his family, but spent his days attending a school created by the postwar Freedman's Bureau.
When he was eight years old, financial necessity forced the Chesnutt family to move to Charlotte, North Carolina and start teaching. At the age of twenty, he married Susan W. Perry, a native of Fayetteville, and became principal of the Fayetteville State Normal School for Negroes. (The school would later become Fayetteville State University and name its library after Chesnutt.) Despite a successful and burgeoning education career, Chesnutt dreamed of expanding his skills, and began writing in 1880. He continued his education, privately studying literature, foreign languages, music, and stenography.
Chesnutt was light skinned and could pass for white if he desired. But he chose instead to bring to light the injustices of slavery. In one of his journal entries in 1880, he wrote: "The object of my writings would not be so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites, -- for I consider the unjust spirit of caste which is so insidious as to pervade a whole nation, and so powerful as to subject a whole race and all connected to it to scorn and social ostracism -- I consider this a barrier to the moral progress of the American people; and I would be one of the first to head a determined, organized crusade against it. Not a fierce indiscriminate onslaught; not an appeal to force, for this is something that force can but slightly affect; but a moral revolution which must be brought about in a different manner."
In 1883, Chesnutt moved to Cleveland. The following year, his wife and children joined him there. Chesnutt studied law and passed the state bar examination 1887. The following year, he set up a court stenography firm. His practice was successful enough to support his family, as needed, for the rest of Chesnutt's life. A few years after he passed the bar, Chesnutt started writing humor sketches and essays. He published a short story when he was twenty-nine. The nationally renowned Atlantic Monthly accepted "The Goophered Grapevine," and Chesnutt became the first African American to be published in the magazine. His work presented a realistic account of black folk culture, more accurate than most attempts of the time. The story was nationally recognized and Chesnutt highly praised; author William Dean Howell commended him for sounding "a fresh note, boldly, not blatantly."
When several more stories met with equal praise, he submitted a collection to publisher Houghton, Mifflin. I was published in 1899, and a second collection later that year. Chesnutt's popularity growing, Houghton, Mifflin published his first novel, The House Behind the Cedars, in 1900. Whereas The Conjure Woman had retold seven slave folk tales, his second and third books delved into issues of mixed race, something radically new for the slowly integrating country. The characters in The House Behind the Cedars were blacks who passed for white in postwar South; Chesnutt detailed such sensitive topics with great understanding and a fundamental call for justice.
Though he remained in Cleveland for the rest of his life, Chesnutt continued to write about the South and the seemingly hopeless situation of its African-American citizens. Meanwhile, he was active in Cleveland civic affairs and many programs for social justice. His last two novels, on the 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina race riot and the difficulty of reviving depressed Southern towns, did not receive much critical attention, as the first whispers of the Harlem Renaissance were being spread in America's growing cities.
After his final 1905 publication, Chesnutt continued to publish sporadic short stories, but by and large, the Harlem Renaissance had eclipsed him. Though unfortunate, the trend is not tragic-the African-American Jazz Age writers owed much of their prominence to their predecessors. Recognizing this, in 1928, the NAACP awarded Chesnutt the Spingarn Medal for "highest achievement by a black American." It commended Chesnutt for his "pioneer work as a literary artist depicting the life and struggles of Americans of Negro descent, and for his long and useful career as scholar, worker, and freeman." Charles Waddell Chesnutt died in 1932, acknowledged as one of the few writers courageous enough to show the country the true struggles of African Americans after the Civil War. In a biography of her father published in 1952, Helen M. Chesnutt described him as "a pioneer Negro author, the first to exploit in fiction the complex lives of men and women of mixed blood."