The comic extraordinaire, Dave Chappelle, continues to be praised as a comic who wields both humor and social critique at the same time and to the same degree, perhaps a little better than anyone before him.
Chapelle attacks sacred grounds and provokes further debate previously thought impossible. Strangely, all of this is neither mean-spirited nor spiteful. He is genuinely funny, strangely empathic and deeply reflective, a quality that can only come from knowing himself and his environment.
He has attributed the strength of his knowledge to his upbringing. When he has mentioned his family’s role in how he became the man he is, Chappelle has spoken with pride about his family’s connection to the larger Black American narrative: slavery, civil rights and self-fulfillment. He appears grounded in the lessons of these epochs.
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It so happens that the depth from which the Chappelle family taps its pride is a wonderful whirlpool of wisdom founded by the evolution in the life of William David Chappelle, the comedian’s great-grandfather. The older Chappelle’s middle name inspires the first name of the comedian.
William Chappelle was born in 1857, already enslaved, in Winnsboro, South Carolina. He was one of eleven children belonging to Henry and Patsy McCory Chappelle. The Encyclopedia of African American Religions, an anthology that cites William’s contributions to the tapestry of Black faith says of his life as a slave boy:
“He spent much of his time working on the farm [belonging to the master of the plantation on which he was born] though, during Reconstruction, he was able to attend a school run by Northern women. He was so eager to learn that he cut wood at night and carried it to town on his head, using the money he earned to but his first book.”
In 1875, William enrolled at the Fairfield Normal Institute, not far from where he had been born. It was an establishment by the Presbyterian Church, under the auspices of Rev. William Richardson, meant to train teachers. William Chappelle would graduate in 1880, by which time he was a married man and also licensed to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.
One thing that speaks to William’s strength of character is that at age 24, with not more than $50 to his name, he took the decision to become a student at Allen University in Columbia. He could have forgone this phase as it meant that he had to work to stay in school as well as take care of himself and his family.
He was still a preacher when he got into Allen. William had to keep that going as well as sometimes, walking a reported 16 miles every Sunday between where he lived and where he had to preach. In 1887, he received a B.A. with honors. He would graduate from Allen again in 1895 with an M.A.
What followed after this was a short stint as a professor and then an appointment as president of Allen University in 1897. This undoubtedly was no mean feat for a once enslaved man. He had overcome odds that would bury many through no fault of theirs.
But it was not all glorious from this point onward. William remarried in 1900 after the tragedy of the death of Eliza Ayers, his first wife with whom he had three children.
For himself and his time, William got to the pinnacle of Black American citizenship. But his life was also dedicated by service to those who looked like him. In 1918, he led a delegation of AME Church pastors that met with President Woodrow Wilson to discuss anti-Black violence in the South. The president did not act in response to what necessitated the Great Migration but William’s delegation became one of the earliest examples of African-American protestations against white resentment in postbellum America.
Dave Chappelle is no doubt proud of his great-grandfather who laid the foundation for the comedian’s father and ultimately, for him. As he told an audience last year, he is glad his great-grandfather became “a man of education and [who] dedicated his life to three things: Education, freedom of Black people, Jesus Christ”.
There is very little doubt that Dave would continue to rely on this foundation as well as add his blocks for the sake of his children.