Charlotte Forten Grimke (1837-1914)

Biography researched by Katie O., age 15, Glen Ridge High School, New Jersey

How has learning about this historical girl affected you?
“Writing the biography of Charlotte Forten Grimké has greatly improved my understanding of the pre-civil rights movement abolitionists. Previously, I did not even know that there had been many black Americans in the north who were fighting to end slavery. While researching Charlotte Forten Grimké, I encountered many other names of other anti-slavery activists who talked to and interacted with Charlotte. Researching Charlotte Forten Grimké has really helped me learn a lot more about the struggles of African Americans and the abolitionists like Charlotte Forten Grimké who tried to help them escape slavery and injustice." -Katie O.

Charlotte Forten Grimke was barely into her twenties when she became the first African American to teach white students.


Charlotte Forten Grimke, c. 1870
New York Public Library, 18SCCDV

Charlotte Forten Grimké was one of the most influential antislavery activists of her time. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1837 as a free individual, Charlotte worked for all of her life trying to end slavery. She also tried to create as much equality between blacks and whites as possible until her death in 1914. She was one of the first black teachers to decide to go down South to attempt to educate the slaves and former slaves. Forten also is remembered for her journals, which she kept diligently throughout her entire life. Charlotte Forten Grimké helped the cause of antislavery during her life and was one of the most influential civil rights and social justice supporters.

Charlotte Forten was born into a family full of abolitionists. Her grandfather was James Forten Sr., who was a well-known abolitionist, and her mother, Mary Woods Forten, was a Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society member. During her childhood she attended Higginson Grammar School along with white students and later the Normal School in Salem, Massachusetts. She joined the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society and began teaching there. The first African-American teacher to be hired in Massachusetts, she probably was the first in the world to teach white students.

In 1862, after Union troops liberated the islands off of South Carolina, many blacks escaped there, and she decided to teach there to help the anti-slavery cause. She found that the black communities in the South were very eager for education.  She wrote about her work at Fort Royal in an Atlantic Monthly article, “Life on the Sea Islands,” which was influential in creating other schools.  Eventually, she became too ill to continue teaching and returned to Philadelphia.

After she retired from teaching she was able to secure a position as a clerk at the Philadelphia branch of the U.S. Treasury Department. It was while she was working there that she met Francis J. Grimké. They were married on December 19, 1878 when Charlotte was 41.  The nephew of famed abolitionists and feminists Sarah Grimké and Angelina Grimké Weld, Francis was a Presbyterian minister.  They eventually moved to Washington, D.C. and had one daughter, Theodora Cornelia, who died as an infant.

One of the things Charlotte Forten Grimké is remembered for is her journals. Beginning in her childhood, she kept many journals diligently throughout her entire life. It is through these journals that we know today how passionate Charlotte Forten was about slavery. According to her journals from her childhood, she simply could not understand why whites thought that they were better than blacks. Her journals later in life described her meetings with influential activists such as Maria Weston Chapman and William Wells Brown.

Charlotte Forten Grimké died on July 23, 1914 of a cerebral embolism. After significantly helping with the anti-slavery cause, she also was active in the women’s rights movement.  She died before either cause won full civil rights, but she certainly helped start them. 1

 

 


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