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Mon, 12.06.1880

Hellen Chesnutt, Teacher born

Helen Chesnutt

*Helen Chesnutt was born on this date in 1880. She was a Black teacher of Latin and the author of an influential biography and Latin textbook.

Helen Maria Chesnutt was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Her parents were the author Charles Chesnutt, said to be the first important black American novelist, and Susan Perry. She attended Smith College with her sister Ethel, living off-campus. The Chesnutt sisters moved to four different addresses during their time at Smith: boarding houses at 95 West Street (1st year), 10 Green Street (2nd year), 36 Green Street (3rd year), and as seniors at 30 Green Street. A diary entry by English Professor Mary Jordan gives a glimpse of the sisters' experiences at Smith College, which appear not to have been happy. She wrote that the "Chesnutt girls are having a hard time with the color line...".

In 1902 Helen Chesnutt graduated with a B.A. from Smith College; it was not until 1925 that she earned an M.A. in Latin from Columbia University. Chesnutt taught Latin for many years at Central High School in Cleveland, Ohio, including to the poet Langston Hughes, who found her inspiring. She co-authored a beginner's Latin textbook entitled The Road to Latin (1932), which was republished in 1938, 1945, and 1949, and received several positive reviews.

The book and teaching methods, which relied on oral presentation of Latin, intensive rather than extensive reading, and a paraphrase method, were discussed and appraised positively in research into teaching Latin in the U.S. at that time. One reviewer noted that the original edition had a "plain cover, on which the title is lettered in black together with a cameo-like oval in gilt showing a slave taking two Roman boys to school." 

Helen Chesnutt was elected to the executive committee of the American Philological Association in 1920, remaining an active member until 1934. Her father's biography remains an essential source of information about this author. Helen Chesnutt died on August 7, 1969.  In 2018 she was featured in an exhibition at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC celebrating the role of African Americans within classics, whose important contributions to the discipline have often been ignored by historians.

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