Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Charlotte Forten Grimke: Educator, Abolitionist, human being

Today's entry in African-American history profiles a formidable woman in history. Period. It comes courtesy of


Charlotte Forten Grimke was born Charlotte Forten on August 17, 1838 (some sources say 1837) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to proud parents and anti-slavery advocates, Robert Forten and Mary Virginia (Wood) Forten. The Biography Resource Center states that, "The Forten name had long been prominent in Philadelphia by the time she was born. " Charlotte was born into freedom and wealth and lived in the Philadelphia home of her grandfather. Her grandfather, James Forten, who was taking care of Charlotte, had invented a device which made it possible to handle sails more easily. He made a hundred thousand dollars, which was a fortune in those days.

As a young girl Charlotte Forten Grimke was aware of, and angered and confused by, the injustices being done to her people. A chapter on Forten Grimke entitled "Black Disciple of Freedom," included in Profiles in Black and White, suggests that she was very sensitive about slavery. In one telling instance, Charlotte's tutor, Mr. Edgar, tried to explain to her that she should not get so worked up and stressed out about the slaves she would see from her window:
The small black girl crept to the long window and parted the heavy draperies. She glanced back to the door to make sure she had not been observed. Through the crack, she saw a gang of recaptured slaves driven along Lombard Street, in Philadelphia. Their chains clanked; their cries of agony filtered into the silence of the high ceilinged room. She stuck out her tongue and shook her fists at the mobs of hooting whites hard on their heels. Tears trickled down her cheeks.
— Chittenden 107
With Charlotte being the only child, she was often lonely. She began to keep a journal at a very early age. But, at the age of sixteen, Charlotte's father realized her need to interact with young people her own age, so he decided to send Charlotte to Salem, Massachusetts. There, Charlotte attended integrated schools while living in the home of Charles Lenox Remond and his family. The Remonds were also abolitionists and old friends of the Fortens.

When Charlotte first arrived in Salem, she was very excited. Charlotte's feelings about slavery were firm, but she still remained a shy person. Charlotte attended Higginson Grammar School in Salem and was very active in her studies, responsibly making it her first priority. While attending school Charlotte didn't have friends in class but was close to the principal, Miss Shepard. Charlotte was a liberationist at heart. She never could stomach the fact that whites believed they were better than blacks. These feelings resulted in her renouncement of Christian ideologies of religion and spirituality. In Profiles in Black and White, Chittenden displays Charlotte's feelings toward Christianity and European traditions all at once. "Oh, it is hard to go through life. . .fearing with too good reason to love and trust hardly anyone whose skin is white--however lovable, attractive, congenial in seeming" (Chittenden 112). It also states, "Charlotte shunned the Fourth of July celebrations labeling them 'celebrations of hypocrisy. ' Her resentment nearly made her renounce God and her religion," stated E. Chittenden (112). Also according to E. Chittenden, Charlotte has stated, "how can I be a Christian when so many in common with myself, for no crime, suffer cruelty, so unjustly?"

Fortunately, Charlotte was able to direct her anger and frustrations about slavery in a positive way. Charlotte graduated with honors in February of 1855, along with the school, using the poem she wrote for a farewell hymn. That year she worked to extend her language capacity and taught herself French and Latin. Charlotte then went on to teach at a Salem Public School becoming the first African-American teacher to teach whites, but then became very ill with lung fever. She resigned from teaching because of her illness and returned to Philadelphia for four years. Charlotte worked on sketches called "Glimpses of New England. " Some of her work was published and she also continued to write poetry. Grimke found herself passionately wanting to get involved in a Union's experiment in South Carolina but was turned down because of her race; all white teachers were picked to teach all black slaves.

Grimke decided to go to the South, specifically South Carolina. Once she arrived she found another teaching job. Charlotte enjoyed teaching more in the South, she felt blacks there were more passionate about learning. "Charlotte insisted her pupils learn about Negro as well as white heroes in history; about blacks who fought in the American Revolution; about Negroes like her uncle Robert Purvis, who helped fugitive slaves on their way to Canada; about Toussaint, the Negro liberator of Haiti; about John Brown of Harper's Ferry, the black man's white friend" (Chittenden 118). "The intensity of her work, the days and evenings with children and adults, the hard physical conditions brought a return of headaches and the threat of another bout with lung fever" (Chittenden 122).

Charlotte retired and remained in Philadelphia writing articles for the Atlantic Monthly about the experiment on Fort Royal (whites teaching black slaves). Soon after, she met Francis Grimke who would become her husband and father of her only child who died. Charlotte and Francis became a revolutionary couple and continued to fight for equal rights for black men and women. Showing the urge to fight social injustices and having similar literary tastes, they made a happy pair. The death of their only child and her need to fight constantly against recurrent illness cast the only shadows on their personal happiness. They remained together comfortably in Washington where Francis had his own church. Charlotte Forten Grimke died of a cerebral embolism on July 23, 1914 in Washington.

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