This is the 5th in my Black History Month look at artifacts from the National Museum of African American History & Culture that speak to North Carolina’s coastal history.
Today I’m looking at another artifact from the National Museum of African American History and Culture that has a connection to the North Carolina coast: a first edition of a book called The Conjure Woman, a collection of short stories by African American writer, lawyer and activist Charles W. Chesnutt.
First published in 1899, The Conjure Woman is set on a plantation in eastern North Carolina after the Civil War. Chesnutt knew that world well: his family was from Fayetteville, N.C., and he had spent much of his youth there before moving north.
Chesnutt drew the themes of the stories from sources ranging from African American folk tales to Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Outwardly the stories resemble the kind of folksy “Plantation Myth” tales that were full of nostalgia for the Slave South. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, white southerners were very fond of stories that made plantation slavery seem like a good thing.
Inwardly, however, Chesnutt’s stories turned that version of southern history on its head. They had a strong subversive streak and they undermined the old myths about the South that whites had created to justify the oppression of African Americans after the Civil War.
The “conjure woman” in the title, by the way, refers to a character called “Aunt Peggy,” an African American witch who figures in the stories. Aunt Peggy has many magical powers, including the ability to steal souls from bodies, and she is not afraid of using her hexes against white people.
Widely considered a landmark in African American literature, The Conjure Woman was the beginning of a career that wedded literature and social activism.
Later in 1899, Chesnutt published another collection of short stories, The Wife of his Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line, in which, among other things, he focused on slave resistance and freedom seeking in the antebellum South.
Within a few years, he also wrote a biography of Frederick Douglass and two novels, The House Behind the Cedars (1900) and The Colonel’s Dream (1905), both of which cast light on generally unspoken aspects of race, class and politics in that era.
Today, we remember Chesnutt above all, though, for another novel, one set in Wilmington, N.C. and published in 1901: The Marrow of Tradition.
In The Marrow of Tradition, Chesnutt relates a fictional, but historically grounded account of the Wilmington coup d’etat and racial massacre of 1898.
As did another early black novelist with roots in Fayetteville, David Bryant Fulton (his novel was called Hanover; or The Persecution of the Lowly), Chesnutt dared to tell the story only three years after the murderous plot by Wilmington’s leading white citizens unfolded.
After 1906 Chesnutt wrote little fiction but increasingly turned his attentions to civil rights activism.
From his family’s home in Cleveland– he had left Fayetteville way back in 1878– he was active in the early formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, working alongside W.E.B. DuBois, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Florence Kelley and other leading social activists.
As I looked at the museum’s copy of The Conjure Woman, however, I thought above all about Chesnutt and The Marrow of Tradition.
For half a century, Chesnutt’s novel, more than any other literary or historical work, kept the story of the racial massacre in Wilmington alive, until a new generation of black scholars, led by Helen Edmonds and H. Leon Prather, Jr., picked up the story where he left off.