Charles W. Chesnutt honored on postage stamp

Robert L. Smith
Plain Dealer Reporter

A trailblazing writer from Cleveland emerged from obscurity Thursday, maybe for good, as he took his place in a pantheon of African-American luminaries.

Charles W. Chesnutt, the greatest local author you never heard of, now graces a 41-cent postage stamp.

The U.S. Postal Service unveiled the Chesnutt stamp at the Cleveland Public Library downtown at a ceremony that had the feel of a revival. A gospel choir sang. A minister prayed. And Chesnutt fans in a crowd of 200 beamed like the blessed.

As the 31st stamp in the Postal Service's Black Heritage series, Chesnutt joins a lofty league, one that includes Harriet Tubman, Langston Hughes, Jesse Owens and Martin Luther King Jr.

His supporters hope the recognition on the eve of Black History Month, which begins today, brings fresh attention to a faded star.

"He was once the rage," said Nathan Oliver, an Akron antiquarian and founder of the Charles Waddell Chesnutt Literary Society. "I have a sense this will reinvigorate interest not only locally but nationally."

Plenty insist the author deserves it.

Writing from his home on Cleveland's East Side, Chesnutt explored the color line near the turn of the 20th century. He spun yarns with complex black characters, a first in American literature.

His graceful prose and realistic plots captured a wide readership. Thursday he was honored as the first black writer to achieve a mass audience.

"We claim him as the greatest Negro writer of the 19th century," said Regennia Williams, a Cleveland State University historian. "He was born here and spent most of his life here. We are proud of him."

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