African American educator Charles W. Cansler was born in Maryville, one of several children of Hugh Lawson and Laura Ann Scott Cansler. Cansler's mother had become Knoxville's first African American teacher in 1864, when she obtained permission from General Ambrose Burnside to open a school for free blacks during the Union occupation of Knoxville.
Young Cansler attended the Freedmen's Normal Institute in Maryville before enrolling at Maryville College. Although he never graduated, he taught school in several East Tennessee counties before accepting a position in the Knoxville city schools.
At age nineteen Cansler took an examination and was hired as a substitute railway mail clerk. Although the position paid no salary, he hoped his experience would make him eligible for regular employment at the end of six months. The first African American hired by the railway line, Cansler soon felt the resentment of white mail clerks. Rather than use Cansler as a substitute, clerks “doubled” and denied him the opportunity to be paid for his work. Disgusted with the situation, he abandoned the hope of gaining full-time employment, although he continued to work as a railway clerk and bookkeeper in the navy yard at Portsmouth, Virginia, during summer vacations.
Cansler read law with Judge W. C. Kain and passed the Knoxville bar in 1892, when he was twenty-one years old. He became a Republican candidate for the Tennessee General Assembly in 1894. Following his electoral defeat, Cansler decided to give up his law practice and involvement in politics and devote himself to education. Knoxville's African American schools would feel his influence for the next half-century.
Cansler began teaching at Austin High School in 1900 and became principal in 1911. The following year he organized the East Tennessee Association of Teachers in Colored Schools. In 1914 Cansler introduced night classes for working people who wanted to continue their education. He led efforts to obtain funding from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation to establish a library for blacks in 1917. In 1919 he influenced the general assembly to pass an act enabling descendants of ex-slaves to inherit real estate. Cansler retired from education in 1939.
Known as a “mathematical wizard,” Cansler traveled the country demonstrating his skills in calculating; he challenged the speed of adding machines in totaling long columns of figures. He wrote two booklets describing his methods. He also published Three Generations: The Story of a Colored Family of Eastern Tennessee, a history of the Cansler family. Cansler died on November 1, 1953.