Jessie Redmon Fauset was born on April 27, 1882, in New Jersey's Camden County. She grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her family was not well-off, but they valued education.
Fauset attended the esteemed Philadelphia High School for Girls, where she was likely the sole African American in her class. She wanted to go on to Bryn Mawr College. However, the institution was reluctant to accept its first black student, choosing instead to help Fauset get a scholarship to attend Cornell University.
Fauset did well at Cornell and was selected to join Phi Beta Kappa (some sources have incorrectly identified her as the first African-American woman to become a member of the academic honor society). After graduating in 1905, Fauset's race kept her from being hired as a teacher in Philadelphia. Instead, she taught in Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
In 1912, while still teaching, Fauset began to submit reviews, essays, poems and short stories to The Crisis, a magazine founded and edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois convinced her to become the publication's literary editor, a position she took up in 1919.
Fauset was active during the Harlem Renaissance, an awakening of artistic output within the African-American community. In her editorial role, she encouraged a number of writers, including Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer and Claude McKay. She also continued to write her own pieces for the magazine.
In addition to her work at The Crisis, Fauset served as co-editor for The Brownies' Book, which was published monthly from 1920 to 1921. The publication's goal was to teach African-American children about their heritage, information Fauset had wished for during her own childhood.
Fauset was inspired to write a novel after reading an inaccurate portrayal of African Americans in a book penned by a white author. Her first novel, There Is Confusion (1924), featured African-American characters in a middle-class setting. It was an unusual choice for the time, which made it more difficult for Fauset to find a publisher.
Fauset left her position at The Crisis in 1926. She looked for work in publishing—even offering to work from home so that her race wouldn't be a factor—but was not successful. She then returned to teaching. Fauset also wrote three more novels: Plum Bun (1929), The Chinaberry Tree (1931) and Comedy: American Style (1933).
Fauset's mostly bourgeois characters continued to deal with prejudice, constrained opportunities and cultural compromises. Some of her contemporaries appreciated her focus on a previously unexamined slice of African-American life, but others scorned her genteel settings. Her last two novels were less successful, and Fauset's formerly prodigious writing output began to taper off.
Fauset had married a businessman, Herbert Harris, in 1929. The two lived together in New Jersey until Harris died in 1958. Fauset then returned to Philadelphia. She died in that city on April, 1961, at the age of 79.
With her support for up-and-coming writers, Fauset was responsible for the development of many new African-American voices, while her novels, essays, poems and other work meant that she was a prolific author in her own right. Though not as well-known as many of her contemporaries, Fauset was an important part of the Harlem Renaissance.