Himes, Chester

Born: July 29, 1909
Died: November 12, 1984

Ohio connection: Former Resident


Chester Himes, son of Joseph Sandy and Estelle (Bomar) Himes, was born in 1909 in Jefferson City, Missouri. His father was African-American and his mother racially mixed. He was raised in a middle-class home in Missouri and later, Ohio. He attended East High School in Cleveland. He was a student at Ohio State University from 1926 until 1928, when he was expelled for a serious prank. After returning to Cleveland, he was arrested on a charge of armed robbery in 1929, for which he was sentenced to 20-to-25 years in the Ohio State Penitentiary. He began writing while in prison, where he witnessed beatings, killings, riots, and a fire that took the lives of more than three hundred inmates. His stories were first published in African-American periodicals such as Abbott`s Monthly and Crisis. A breakthrough came for Himes when Esquire published “Crazy in the Stir” and “To What Red Hell.” After serving seven and a half years of his sentence, he was released. He returned to Cleveland, where he worked for the Ohio Writers’ Project, and as a research assistant for the Cleveland Public Library. In 1937, Himes married Lucinda Johnson. They moved to California, where Himes worked as an unskilled laborer, due largely to his prison record. He began to focus on his writing, publishing his first novel entitled If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945). In this book, he expressed bitter reactions to his experiences in Los Angeles, where he was forced to work in twenty-three odd jobs in menial positions, even though he was qualified to work as a skilled laborer. His second novel, Lonely Crusade (1947), is also based in Los Angeles, and focuses on the turmoil of a black man in the midst of a racist society. Some of his other books dealt with his experiences in prison (Cast the First Stone); the racial conflicts within his own family (The Third Generation); and romance involving interracial couples (The Primitive). Himes and his wife divorced in 1951. Frustrated with American society, Himes moved to Paris, France in 1953. While in Paris, he found his greatest success in the writing of Serie Noir, a series of nine crime-thriller novels set in Harlem. He referred to it as the Harlem Domestic series. Chester Himes died in Spain on November 12, 1984.

Julius Rosenwald fellowship in creative writing, 1944-45; Yaddo fellowship, 1948; Grand Prix Policier, 1958, for La Reine des Pommes.