Charles Warner Cansler was a railway mail clerk, lawyer, educator, and noted mathematician. He spent most of his life working to better the lives of African Americans in Eastern Tennessee by way of education. Some of his contributions included organizing the East Tennessee Association of Teachers in Colored Schools and Acquiring funding to build the Knoxville Free Colored Library.
Cansler was born on May 15, 1871 in Maryville, Tennessee to Mary Scott, the first African American school teacher in Knoxville, Tennessee and daughter of William B. Scott, publisher of The Colored Tennessean, and Hugh Lawson Cansler, and was one of nine children. Cansler attended the Freedman’s Normal Institute in Maryville, Tennessee, which both of his parents had helped found. He then enrolled in Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee, though he would never graduate.
At the age of 19 Cansler took the civil service exam to become a railway mail clerk. He passed and began working as a substitute mail clerk. The position had no salary, and instead after six months Cansler could be hired as a full employee. He was the first African American on this particular railway line, which drew the ire of his coworkers. They conspired to lock him out of work and pay. Cansler eventually quit his job and began studying law with Judge W. C. Kain. In 1892 at the age of 21 Cansler passed the Knoxville bar exam, becoming a certified lawyer in the state of Tennessee. He went on to run as a Republican candidate for the Tennessee State Legislator in 1894 but lost.
Following his political defeat Cansler gave up both politics and practicing law, instead rededicating himself to education. In 1900 he began teaching at Austin High School in Knoxville, Tennessee, and in 1911 was named principal. In 1912 he organized the East Tennessee Association of Teachers in Colored Schools, and in 1914 he began offering night courses in order to help working citizens continue their education. In 1916 he became the principal of Knoxville Colored High School and one year later, in 1917, was one of the driving forces in obtaining funding from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation to build Knoxville’s Free Colored Library. He then used his influence in 1919 to convince the Tennessee State Legislature to pass an act allowing the descendants of freed slaves to inherit land.
In addition to his work in the school system, Cansler was also widely known for his mathematical capabilities. He traveled around the country giving demonstrations in which he calculated rows of numbers faster than adding machines. Eventually he wrote two booklets detailing the methods he used in calculations.
Charles Cansler retired from education in 1939, that same year he published his autobiography titled Three Generations: The Story of a Colored Family in Eastern Tennessee. He was married to Lillian Webber and together they had one daughter, Willard Wilson Cansler. Charles W. Cansler died on November 1, 1953 in Knoxville Tennessee at the age of 83.