Women in Education: Teacher of Emancipated Slaves
Charlotte Forten was the first northern African American schoolteacher to go south to teach former slaves. As a black woman, she hoped to find kinship with the freedmen, but her own education set her apart from the former slaves. For two years she stayed on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, but ill health forced her to return north. In 1864, she published “Life on the Sea Islands” in The Atlantic Monthly, which brought the work of the Port Royal Experiment to the attention of northern readers.
Charlotte Forten was born in Philadelphia in 1837 into an influential and affluent family, all of whom were active in promoting equal rights for African Americans. They moved in the same circles as William Lloyd Garrison and John Greenleaf Whittier. Her mother died when she was very young, and she was raised by her grandmother. An only child, Charlotte lead a protected life, was not allowed to attend Philadelphia’s segregated schools, but was taught by private tutors at home.
In May 1854, Charlotte’s father Robert Forten sent her to live with Charles and Sarah Remond, prominent black abolitionists in Salem, Massachusetts. Upon her arrival at the Remonds, Charlotte enrolled in the Higginson Grammar School for Girls under its principal, Mary Shepard. The Higginson school was known for its emphasis on critical thinking in studying history, geography, drawing and cartography. Charlotte was the only non-white student out of 200.
About that same time, escaped slave Anthony Burns was returned to slavery by Federal marshals under the Fugitive Slave Law. This incident prompted Robert Forten to move his family to Canada, but he left Charlotte in Salem with the Remonds. She graduated from Higginson in 1855.
She wrote to her father in Canada for permission to attend the Salem Normal School, where she had already passed the entrance exam. Forten ordered his daughter to return to Philadelphia immediately. The school principal Mary Shepard urged her to write to him again, and Forten eventually agreed to allow Charlotte to attend, but he did not offer to pay her expenses. Shepard loaned her the money to continue her education.
Career in Education
In mid-June 1856, a month before final exams, Charlotte received a teaching assignment at the integrated Epes Grammar School, the first African American ever hired. During this time, her talent for poetry emerged, and her work was published in antislavery publications, such as The Liberator and Anglo African Magazine.
The following year, tuberculosis forced Charlotte to leave her teaching job and return to Philadelphia. The school was unhappy to see her go and promised her a position when she returned. She accepted an invitation to move in with Caroline Putman, Charles Remond’s sister. Her health continued to deteriorate, and for many months she lay bedridden. Charlotte was finally able to return to Salem in September 1859, but her health thereafter was always poor.
When Abraham Lincoln was elected to the presidency in the autumn of 1860, the outbreak of the Civil War soon followed. Charlotte longed to contribute to the Union cause. Early in 1862, she learned that the Port Royal area of South Carolina was full of fleeing slaves, and some 2000 black children who barely knew the alphabet. She applied to the Philadelphia Port Royal Educational Commission, was accepted and headed south on October 27, 1862.
In the midst of the Civil War, Charlotte arrived at Oaklands, an abandoned plantation on St. Helena Island, off the coast of South Carolina. A precarious place for a volunteer, St. Helena was often rampant with yellow fever. The danger of a Confederate attack threatened constantly, and the Union soldiers seemed less than protective. Charlotte noted that they “talked flippantly and sneeringly of the Negroes.”
About 140 freed children gathered for school in a single-room Baptist church nearby. As Charlotte began teaching, she found that many of her pupils spoke only Gullah, an English-based Creole language spoken by African Americans in the lowcountry of South Carolina. And though Charlotte yearned to feel a bond with her kinsmen, her upbringing and education set her apart. She actually had more in common with the white abolitionists there.
Charlotte Forten Letter to William Lloyd Garrison:
St. Helena’s Island, South Carolina
November 20, 1862
My Dear Friend:
St. Helena’s Island, on which I am, is about six miles from the mainland of Beaufort. I must tell you that we were rowed hither from Beaufort by a crew of negro boatmen, and that they sang for us several of their own beautiful songs. There is a peculiar wildness and solemnity about them which cannot be described, and the people accompany the singing with a singular swaying motion of the body which seems to make it more effective.
As far as I have been able to observe, the negroes here rejoice in their new-found freedom. It does me good to see how jubilant they are over the downfall of their ‘secesh’ masters… They are a truly religious people. They speak to God with a loving familiarity. Another trait that I have noticed is their natural courtesy of manner. There is nothing cringing about it, but it seems inborn, and one might almost say elegant. It marks their behavior toward each other as well as to the white people.
My school is about a mile from here, in the little Baptist church, which is in a grove of white oaks. These trees are beautiful – evergreen – and every branch heavily draped with long, bearded moss, which gives them a strange, mournful look…. At present, our school is small – many of the children being ill with whooping cough – but in general it averages eighty or ninety. It is a great happiness to teach them. I wish some of those persons at the North who say the race is hopelessly and naturally inferior could see the readiness with which these children, so long oppressed and deprived of every privilege, learn and understand….
Charlotte also developed a deep friendship with Robert Gould Shaw, the Commander of the all black 54th Massachusetts Regiment during the Sea Islands Campaign and was present when the 54th stormed Fort Wagner on the night of July 18, 1863. Shaw was killed in the battle and Forten volunteered as a nurse to the surviving members of the 54th.
The few Southern whites remaining in the area openly showed their hatred, and Charlotte carried a pistol after someone made an attempt to break into her sleeping quarters. “The thought of falling into the hands of the Rebels,” she wrote, “was horrible in the extreme.”
She chronicled her time there in her essays titled, “Life on the Sea Islands,” which were published in the Atlantic Monthly in the May and June issues of 1864. Under physical and emotional stress, Charlotte became ill. She began to experience terrible headaches and was forced to leave St. Helena and return to Philadelphia in 1864, after only two years.
After the Civil War, Charlotte worked with the Freedmen’s Relief Association in Boston to help former slaves find jobs and homes. In the late 1860s, she worked for the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, DC recruiting teachers. In 1873 she became a clerk at the Treasury Department.
On December 19 1878, at age of 41, Charlotte married Francis Grimke, the mulatto nephew of abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimke. Francis was a law student and a Presbyterian minister who used his church as a civil rights platform. The Grimkes lived in Washington, DC, and their home became a social and intellectual gathering place for friends and associates. Charlotte gave birth to a daughter in June 1880 but she died as an infant.
Charlotte then helped her husband in his ministry and organized a women’s missionary group. Her husband became pastor at the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, and Charlotte continued to fight for education and equality for African Americans.
After many years as an invalid, Charlotte Forten Grimke died in 1914 at her home in Washington, DC, at the age of 77.
Charlotte’s diaries, which have been published numerous times over the years, have proved to be her most lasting legacy. With her writings, she has provided an eyewitness account of a pivotal and turbulent time in American history. Forten also offers her readers a glimpse at such famous figures as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and other leading activists of her day.