Born in slavery (with a white father) in what is now Vance County, North Carolina, Cheatham attended public school and graduated from Shaw University in 1883. After working as a school principal, Cheatham served as the elected Register of Deeds for Vance County (1884–1888). In 1884, he married Louisa (or Louise) Cherry, who taught music at the school where Cheatham was principal. In 1888, Cheatham was narrowly elected to Congress over incumbent Furnifold M. Simmons (who would later lead the White Supremacy campaigns that disfranchised North Carolina blacks). During the campaign, Cheatham allegedly told black voters that Simmons and President Grover Cleveland would re-enslave them. Other press outlets of the time later dismissed these allegations by the press as hyperbole or having misrepresented Cheatham’s words.
In Congress, Cheatham (then the only black North Carolina congressman) supported federal support for education, the McKinley tariff, and a bill to safeguard the voting rights of African Americans. He tended mostly to the needs of his constituents (of both races), but was largely unsuccessful getting his own bills passed. Cheatham served on the House committees on Education, Expenditures on Public Buildings, and Agriculture.
In 1890, Cheatham defeated Democrat James M. Mewborne, with 16,943 votes to 15,713. But nationwide, Democrats re-took the House of Representatives, and Cheatham found himself the only black congressman in the Fifty-second Congress (he had also been the only black congressman in the first half of the 51st Congress).
He unsuccessfully sought re-election to a third term in 1892, after the North Carolina legislature changed the boundaries of his congressional district. The presence of a Populist on the ballot also contributed to the victory of Democrat Frederick A. Woodard.
Cheatham ran against Woodard again in 1894 without success, and for the Republican nomination in 1896, only to be defeated by his brother-in-law, George Henry White, the next (and last) Reconstruction-era black North Carolina congressman.
In 1897, President William McKinley‘s administration appointed him Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia, a position he held through 1901. Cheatham, a friend and ally of Booker T. Washington, was criticized for standing by McKinley as the Republican administration did little to stem the rising tide of racism and segregation.
After four years in Washington, D.C., Cheatham returned to farm in Littleton, North Carolina. He later moved to Oxford, North Carolina and served as superintendent of the Colored Orphanage of North Carolina (then known as the Colored Orphan Asylum) there for the next twenty-eight years. According to a 1939 orphanage document, Cheatham, who had helped found the orphanage in 1883, “was its superintendent and to him more than any man, is due the credit for the remarkable progress and development of the institution.” He died in Oxford in 1935.
Known as an educated, discreet, and diplomatic man, Cheatham impressed even white-supremacist Democrat Josephus Daniels, who remarked that he regarded Cheatham highly as a man who had gained the confidence of both races.