• Date of Birth: December 6, 1880
  • Born City: Fayetteville
  • Born State/Country: NC
  • Parents: Charles and Susan Utley Perry C.
  • Date of Death: August 7, 1969
  • Death City: Cleveland
  • Death State/Country: OH
  • Education:

    A.B. Smith Coll., 1902; A.M. Columbia U., 1925

  • Professional Experience:

    Teacher (Latin, also Algebra and Biology), Central High School (Cleveland OH), ca. 1904-ca. 1943

  • Publications:

    "The Home Garden Club of Central High School", Cleveland Women 1 no. 36 (9 March 1918): 18; “The Story of the Fasces at Central High School,” School Review 33 (April, 1925): 303-306; “Ecce Vergilius,” Classical Journal 26 (1931): 273-278; The Road to Latin: A First-Year Latin Book (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Company, 1932, repr. 1938, 1945, 1949) [with Martha W. Olivenbaum and Nellie P. Rosebaugh]; Cleveland Plan for the Teaching of Languages with Special References to Latin (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Company, 1940) [with Sauzé de, Émile Blais, Martha Whittier Olivenbaum, and Nellie Price Rosebaugh]; Charles Waddell Chesnutt: Pioneer of the Color Line (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1952).

  • Notes:

    Helen Maria Chesnutt was the second daughter of the acclaimed African American novelist Charles Chesnutt (1858-1932) and Susan Utley Perry (1861-1940) who were married on June 6, 1878. When the family moved to Cleveland, she and her elder sister Ethel entered Central High School and both girls took the classical course. Central High School was not only Cleveland’s oldest school with a serious commitment to traditional education, but also the first free public high school west of the Alleghenies. By 1918, the school would have four full-time Latin teachers on its staff. Helen graduated in June of 1897, and in the fall, she joined her sister as her roommate at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She earned her B.A. from Smith College in 1902 and was the third black student to graduate.


    Documents from the archives at Smith College tell us that both Helen and Ethel took four years of Latin and one of Greek. Helen herself took upper-level courses in French and Italian. Her professional career was spent almost entirely in Cleveland where she taught Latin at her alma mater, Central High School. She worked with vigor to bring her classroom alive and stimulated her students by engaging them in projects such as the bi-millennial celebrations of Vergil’s birth in 1930. In the fall of 1925, Chesnutt earned an M.A. in Latin from Columbia University. In 1932, she co-authored a beginning Latin textbook with Martha Olivenbaum and Nellie Rosebaugh titled The Road to Latin. The book was a success, and after its initial publication by John C. Winston Company, it was published again in 1938, 1945, and 1949. Helen joined the American Philological Association in 1920 (TAPA 51 (1920): vi) and the evidence at this point indicates that she was the first black woman to have done so.


    Helen devoted her life to teaching and never married. She died August 7, 1969 in Cleveland. Her body was buried in the family plot in Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery.

  • Sources:

    Ronnick, Michele Valerie, “Classical Education and the Advancement of African American Women from the Nineteenth to the Twentieth Century,” in Unsealing the Fountain: Pioneering Female Classical Scholars from the Renaissance to the Twentieth Century, Classical Presences Series, (eds.) Rosie Wyles and Edith Hall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016):176-193; White, Dorrance T., “The Road to Latin by Helen M. Chesnutt, Martha W. Olivenbaum, Nellie P. Rosebaugh,” Classical Journal 28 (June, 1933): 540-544.

    See also this lecture on the life of Helen M. Chesnutt by Michele Valerie Ronnick: https://youtu.be/1yzll0uQI9k

    Image: College Archives, Smith College Libraries

  • Author: Michele Valerie Ronnick