“Some time, we are told, when the cycle of years has rolled around, there is to be another golden age, when all men will dwell together in love and harmony, and when peace and righteousness shall prevail for a thousand years.  God speed the day, and let not the shining thread of hope become so enmeshed in the web of circumstance that we lose sight of it; but give us here and there, and now and then, some little foretaste of this golden age, that we may the more patiently and hopefully await its coming!”

I was introduced to the writings of Charles Waddell Chesnutt during a National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored Landmarks of American History seminar during the summer of 2010.  I was in Atlanta to study the civil rights history of the region, and we read some of Chesnutt’s 19th century stories, which earned acclaim both for his conjure tales written in the vernacular but also for his stories that addressed the color line.  Probably his most famous story is “The Goophered Grapevine.”

The quote above comes from “The Web of Circumstance,” which was published in 1899 as part of a story collection entitled The Wife of His Youth.  Only recently have I learned more about Chesnutt’s personal history.  He was born in 1858 to free mulattoes, and his family moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, after the Civil War.  He attended Howard School and taught in several places before becoming the principal of the new State Colored Normal School for teacher training in 1879.  In 1883, he moved north to pursue his writing dream, though he still set his stories primarily in the American South.  Although a number of his stories were published in The Atlantic Monthly, his foray into novel writing was less successful, and writing never became a full-time profession for him.  However, many credit him for laying the foundation for the success of the Harlem Renaissance.

Chesnutt wound up living in Cleveland, passed the state bar examination in Ohio, and established his own court reporting firm.  He died in 1932, and his papers can be found at Fayetteville State University — the successor to the State Colored Normal School — where the special collections are named in his honor.

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