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2008 African American Read-In: Stamp Unveiling

image of Charles W. Chesnutt stamp

U.S. Postal Service Black Heritage Stamp Unveiling
Charles W. Chesnutt

During the 2008 DCCCD citywide African American Read-In, the United States Postal Service will unveil the next commemorative stamp in its Black Heritage series, honoring author Charles W. Chesnutt.

On Jan. 31, 2008, in Cleveland, the Postal Service will issue a 41-cent Charles W. Chesnutt commemorative stamp in one design in a pressure-sensitive adhesive pane of 20 stamps. Designed by Howard E. Paine of Delaplane, Va., the stamp goes on sale nationwide that day.

With its 31st stamp in the Black Heritage series, the U.S. Postal Service honors Chesnutt, a pioneering writer recognized today as a major innovator and singular voice among turn-of-the-century literary realists who probed the color line in American life. Art director Howard Paine wanted a stamp that emphasized Chesnutt’s intelligence and dignity. The portrait — painted by stamp artist Kazuhiko Sano of Mill Valley, Calif. — is based on a 1908 photograph from the special collections of Fisk University’s Franklin Library.

Chesnutt, an African-American author and political activist, wrote novels and short stories exploring racism and other social themes. He was born in Cleveland; his parents, Andrew Jackson and Ann Maria (Sampson) Chesnutt, both were “free persons of color” from Fayetteville, N.C. His paternal grandfather was a white slaveholder, and although he was of mixed race, Chesnutt was considered “legally” black during that time. Much of his work explored miscegenation, “passing” and racial identity.

After the Civil War, his family moved back to Fayetteville. Chesnutt became a student-teacher at age 16 and eventually became assistant principal at the normal school in that city. He married Susan Perry in 1878 and the couple moved to New York City, where he hoped to pursue a literary career.

After six months in New York, the couple returned to Cleveland, where Charles studied for and passed the bar exam and established a successful stenography business. Chesnutt began writing stories that were published in several magazines; his first short story was titled “The Goophered Grapevine,” which appeared in the August 1887 issue of Atlantic Monthly. His first book, a collection of short stories titled “The Conjure Woman,” was printed in 1899. He continued to write short stories and also penned a biography of Frederick Douglass, plus several full-length novels. Poor novel sales prompted him to continue in the stenography business and to become a social and political activist. He died in 1932. Other selected works include: “The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line”; “Frederick Douglass”; “The House Behind the Cedars”; “The Marrow of Tradition”; “The Colonel’s Dream”; “Mandy Oxendine”; “A Business Career”; and others.

Sources: Wikipedia and the U.S. Postal Service