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Smith Libraries Exhibits

Beginnings: Helen and Ethel Chesnutt

Ethel Chesnutt, Smith College Class of 1901, c1901.


When Otelia Cromwell was at Smith, there were only two other African American students on campus. Ethel and Helen Chesnutt, both Class of 1901, were the daughters of Charles W. Chesnutt, American Author, essayist, political activist and lawyer, who is best known for his novels and short stories exploring complex issues of racial and social identity in the post-Civil War South.

How each dealt with the fact that they were the only people of color on the campus is unknown. We do know they all lived off-campus: Otelia Cromwell on Round Hill Road, then later Main Street; the Chesnutt sisters lived in four different approved boarding houses 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.

Helen Chesnutt, Smith College Class of 1901, c1901.


There is little to no personal material about the Chesnutt sisters in the College Archives. A single piece of information from an entry in English Professor Mary Jordan's diary suggests they were unhappy with their Smith College experience. The entry notes the "Chesnutt girls are having a hard time with the color line..." Published letters in Charles Wadell Chesnutt: Pioneer of the Color Line by Helen M. Chesnutt (1952) can help us understand what college life was like for the sisters.



Beginnings: Helen and Ethel Chesnutt