I was excited when I was asked to contribute to our Black History Month coverage by writing about one of the women on our banner. I already knew who I would choose, because she had caught my attention from the first time I watched the slideshow that Ophelia added in the beginning of February: Charlotte Forten Grimke.
I have to admit she wasn’t as easy to research as I had thought or hoped. Have you ever noticed how some topics or individuals’ internet presence seems to have frozen in the late 1990s? This is unfortunately the case with Grimke, and I had to wade through a lot of short articles with the exact same vaguely-worded sentences before I found anything substantial. I really hope I have done her justice, as the information I was able to find revealed her to be an amazing woman.
Charlotte Forten Grimke was a writer, teacher, and abolitionist born into a prosperous black family in Philadelphia in 1837. Her uncle was Robert Purvis and her grandfather was James Forten. Her older relatives were businesspeople, inventors, social advocates, philanthropists, and members of anti-slavery societies. Her young mind was shaped by the passionate, successful, ambitious people within her own family who were determined to use their social status and influence to fight for the abolition of slavery and equal rights for black Americans.
[pullquote]”Oh, that I could do much towards bettering our condition. I will do all, all the very little that lies in my power, while life and strength last!”[/pullquote]Thanks to her wealthy upbringing, she was able to attend school and receive an education in the years that slavery was still legal. Her father sent her to school in Salem, MA. She was the only black student at her school, but quickly proved herself to be a thoughtful and eager student. She also became active in the Salem Anti-Slavery Society and was the first black student (and graduate) of the Salem Normal School, an institution that trained teachers. After her graduation and subsequent job placement, she also had the distinction of being the first black teacher to teach white students in that state.
She became friends with other prominent leaders such as including William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator (an anti-slavery publication), and activists Maria Weston Chapman and William Wells Brown. She began to write poetry as an outlet for her feelings about the cause, some of which were published in The Liberator.
During the Civil War, she participated in the Port Royal experiment, in which teachers were sent to the islands off South Carolina to teach the former slaves who lived there. The former plantation owners had fled the area when it was liberated by Union forces, and the remaining freed slaves desired to learn and the opportunity to prove they could live independently. After two years of teaching, Grimke had to leave due to illness, but her thoughts are preserved in the form of her essay “Life on the Sea Islands,” which was published in the Atlantic (then called the Atlantic Monthly).
In her later years, Grimke moved to Washington, DC, where she worked for the US Treasury Department. There she also met her husband, Francis Grimke, a minister and former slave who used his platform to advocate for further social change and the end of racism in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery. Charlotte Forten Grimke died in Washington, DC at the age of 77. Her deeds and written works (particularly her journals) still resonate today and show the spark of an energetic, brilliant, passionate woman.