Postal Service Honors African-American Novelist Charles W. Chesnutt

To commemorate Black History Month, the United States Postal Service recently released the 31st stamp in its Black Heritage series. This year’s honoree is Charles W. Chesnutt.

Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1858. His parents were free-born blacks who had moved to Ohio from North Carolina. His father was a grocer. The Chesnutts had very light complexions and easily could have passed for whites. But after the Civil War the family decided to return to the South to live as Negroes. Young Charles received some early schooling but taught himself mathematics, history, and ancient languages. He also became proficient in stenography.

At age 25 Chesnutt moved back to Cleveland. A “voluntary Negro” who refused to pass for white, Chesnutt used his stenographic skills to secure work so that he could study law at night. He passed the Ohio bar in 1887. He then launched a successful career operating a stenographic service for the Ohio court system.

Chesnutt’s economic success permitted him to dabble in his first love — writing.  With his first novel The House Behind the Cedars, he became the nation’s first commercially successful African-American writer of fiction. Over the course of a long career, he wrote three novels, a biography of Frederick Douglass, and some 80 short stories.

Chesnutt died in 1932 at the age of 74.