Charles Chesnutt was both black and white, both northern and southern, both radical and conservative. Though he might have escaped these contradictions by "passing" or by moving to Europe, he chose instead to confront them and to spend his life challenging his countrymen to acknowledge and accept him as he was--as a citizen, as a businessman, and as a writer.
Chesnutt's story is best begun in North Carolina in the 1830s. There, a mild economic depression created greater competition between free blacks and working-class whites. At the same time, as the white population became increasingly fearful of slave insurrections, free blacks were feared as potential rabble-rousers. In response to these economic and social instabilities, the state legislature passed a series of laws restricting the rights of free blacks, depriving them of both a political voice and freedom of movement. Over the next twenty years, increasing hostility between the races drove many free blacks out of North Carolina. It was in a caravan of "free persons of color" emigrating north from Fayetteville in 1856 that Charles Chesnutt's parents met.
Ann Maria Sampson was a fair-skinned, high spirited, and ambitious young woman who, at the risk of fines, imprisonment, and whipping, had defied the North Carolina laws against teaching slaves to read and write. She travelled with her darker-skinned mother, Chloe Sampson. Her father was a white man whose identity is not revealed in family records. Equally mysterious are the circumstances under which she and her mother managed to become literate in a small southern town where there were no Negro schools and where educated blacks were considered dangerous.
Chesnutt's father, Andrew Jackson Chesnutt, was the son of a free mulatto, Ann Chesnutt, and a well-to-do white man named Waddell Cade. Although Cade also had fathered heirs by his white wife, during his life he deeded a good deal of property to Ann Chesnutt's many children. It must have been common knowledge in Fayetteville in the 1840s that Ann Chesnutt's household was maintained by Waddell Cade and that some of her children eventually left Fayetteville in order to pass for white. Years later, in his most important novel, Charles Waddell Chesnutt would recreate his grandmother's household and trace to a tragic end a fictional daughter's unsuccessful attempt at passing.
If Jack Chesnutt had thought of passing in the North, he changed his mind, married Ann Maria Sampson, and settled with her and her mother in Cleveland, where he found work driving a city horse car. In 1858 their first son, Charles, was born, and Ann Maria determined that, given a stable childhood and a good education, he would grow up to be a scholar and a gentleman.
When the war came, Jack enlisted as a teamster in the Union army, leaving Ann Maria and their three sons in Cleveland where, when he was old enough, Charles began to attend the public schools. At the war's end, Jack found himself near Fayetteville and went to visit his father. Cade, who was ill and feeble, offered to establish his son in a grocery business in Fayetteville, and so Jack decided to stay. Ann Maria at first rebelled at the idea of returning to the South when the future for her children looked so bright in the North, but finally she submitted and joined her husband in 1866.
Growing up in North Carolina during the era of Reconstruction, Charles learned two important things: first, that he was a "nigger" and, second, that he had more natural ability than most of the people around him, white or black. This paradox left him in what he later came to see as a kind of no-man's-land, for he was "too 'stuck-up' for the colored folks, and, of course, note recognized by the whites." For him there would be no higher education, no possible profession but teaching, and no society but that of a handful of middle-class blacks. Finding a place for himself would be difficult indeed. . . .