Chester Bomar Himes (1909–1984)

Chester Bomar Himes, a renowned writer of protest novels and detective fiction, spent part of his childhood in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), where his father, Joseph Sandy Himes Sr., was a teacher in the 1920s at Branch Normal College, now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB).

Chester Himes was born on July 29, 1909, in Jefferson City, Missouri, where his father taught blacksmithing and wheelwrighting at the Lincoln Institute (later Lincoln University), a land-grant college for African Americans. Joseph Himes, with wife Estelle Bomar Himes and sons, moved to Pine Bluff in the fall of 1920 to teach mechanical trades and African American history at Branch Normal.

Around 1921 or 1922, Himes’s brother Joseph Jr. was blinded in an explosion during a chemistry demonstration, which shot ground glass into his eyes. He was refused care at the whites-only Davis Hospital in Pine Bluff because of Jim Crow laws. He was then taken to a Black hospital in Pine Bluff, which bandaged his eyes without removing the glass. Himes wrote in the first of his two autobiographies, The Quality of Hurt, “That one moment in my life hurt me as much as all the others put together.” Himes’s mother eventually took Joseph Jr. to Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, to be treated, and the two ended up staying in St. Louis.

It was in Arkansas, though, where Himes, according to biographer Lawrence P. Jackson, first learned writing and great literature from “the stand-out English teacher, Ernestine Copeland,” whose class “was the singular academic experience in Chester’s educational career.”

Himes and his father left Arkansas to reunite with Himes’s mother and brother, and, in 1924, the family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio. After Himes graduated from high school in 1926, he enrolled at Ohio State University, where it was determined he had one of the highest IQs on campus. Despite his intelligence, he fell in with a tough group back in Cleveland, withdrew from Ohio State for “ill health and failing grades,” and ended up in 1928 beginning a prison sentence for armed robbery. “I grew to manhood in the Ohio State Penitentiary,” Himes wrote in The Quality of Hurt. “I was nineteen years old when I went in and twenty-six years old when I came out.”

It was also at the Ohio State Penitentiary where Himes became a writer. He wrote for the Black press, primarily about crimes and criminals, and sold his first short story in 1934, two years before he was released from prison, to Esquire magazine. The story, “To What Red Hell,” was about the worst prison fire in history, occurring on Easter Sunday 1930 at Ohio State Penitentiary, during which 322 men were killed and 230 injured. Himes was an immediate witness to both the fire and its aftermath, planting the seed for the story.

After Chester was granted parole on April 1, 1936, he returned home to Cleveland, eventually landing a job with the Works Progress Administration’s writers’ project. When Himes successfully appealed his parole limits, he headed to Los Angeles, California, where he wrote his first novel about working in shipyards. “It was from the accumulation of my racial hurts that I wrote my bitter novel of protest If He Hollers Let Him Go,” Himes noted in an autobiography. In 1944, Himes migrated to New York, later the setting of his Harlem-detective series of novels. Hoping to escape the racism of life in America, Himes boarded the Ile de France, landed at Le Havre, and took a boat train to Paris, France, arriving on April 9, 1953.

In France, where he finally found appreciation for his talent, he began writing crime fiction and, in 1958, won the Grand Prix de Literature Policiere for the first of his nine Harlem Cycle books, A Rage in Harlem, in which he introduced his Black New York Police Department detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones.

Himes was married twice. In 1937, he married Jean Lucinda Johnson, who was a manager for public service programs. The two separated in 1952 and divorced in 1978. That same year, he married Lesley Packard, an Englishwoman who settled in France after World War II.

Himes died on November 12, 1984, in Moravia, Spain, where he had settled in the late 1960s.

For additional information:
Himes, Chester. The Quality of Hurt: The Early Years: The Autobiography of Chester Himes. Emeryville, CA: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1971.

Jackson, Lawrence P. Chester B. Himes, a Biography. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2017.

Jeff Waggoner
Nassau, New York


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