Introducing Charlotte Forten Grimke

Charlotte Forten Grimke

Charlotte Forten Grimke

Charlotte Forten Grimke was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on August 17, 1837, one of the two children of Robert Bridges Forten and Mary Virginia Woods Forten, free-born African Americans. Her paternal grandfather, James Forten, was a wealthy sail-maker. When the radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison of Boston sought funding to begin publishing his newspaper The Liberator, it was James Forten and John B Vashon of Pittsburgh, the two wealthiest black men in the state, who gave him the necessary money. Most white abolitionists in 1831 were too unwilling to invest in such a dangerous venture. James Forten also provided financial backing to Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society.

James Forten, businessman & abolitionist

James Forten, businessman & abolitionist

Mary Forten died in the summer of 1840. Charlotte missed her mother all the rest of her life. Robert Forten would not send his daughter to the segregated schools of Philadelphia so he had her tutored at home. She was bright, friendly and attractive. Charlotte spent a lot of time with her grandparents and her uncle, Robert Purvis. Purvis, a wealthy and college-educated man of mixed race, married Harriet Forten. Charlotte’s grandparents, father, Uncle Robert and Aunt Harriet were politically active in the anti-slavery cause so from a young age Charlotte found herself in the company of Garrison, John Greenleaf Whittier, Harriet Martineau, Lucretia and James Mott, Sarah Mapps Douglass, William Nell, and Charles Remond. At age 16, Charlotte was sent by her father to Salem, Massachusetts to pursue further education. A young woman interested in the cause of abolition and with a flair for writing, Charlotte became active in the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society and Garrison published one of her poems in The Liberator. In addition she began, in 1854, to keep a diary, which she would maintain periodically until 11892. During this time, escaped slave Anthony Burns was returned to slavery by Federal marshals under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The incident, which frightend both free-born black people and other fugitive slaves who had made lives for themselves in urban areas, prompted Robert Forten to move his family to Canada, but he left Charlotte in Salem with the Remonds in Salem. She graduated from Higginson Grammar School in March, 1855.

Charlotte Forten wrote to her father in Canada for permission to attend the Salem Normal School, where she had already passed the entrance exam. Robert 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. Ms Shepard loaned her the money to continue her education.

In June, 1856, Ms Forten became a teacher in Salem at the integrated Epes Grammar School but health problems forced her to return to Philadelphia after only one year of work. Her great classroom abilities made her popular with students, parents and colleagues and gave her certainty that she could teach well.

Between June, 1857 and the summer of 1862, Charlotte Forten struggled with recurring health problems, taught school when she was able and had several poems and essays published. On August 9, 1862, she and Mary Shepard visited with the poet and dedicated abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier in his home. Whittier advised the talented teacher to join the teachers at Port Royal, South Carolina who were instructing escaped slaves, children and adults, under the protection of Union soldiers. She applied to the Philadelphia Port Royal Educational Commission, was accepted and headed south on October 27, 1862.

From then until May 1864, she taught school, kept her diary quite faithfully, maintained extensive correspondence and built many friendships, including the white Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson and many of his black soldiers as well as the white Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and a number of his black soldiers. The few Southern whites remaining in the area openly showed their hatred, and Charlotte Forten began to carry a pistol after someone made an attempt to break into her sleeping quarters. She noted in her diary, “The thought of falling into the hands of the Rebels was horrible in the extreme.”

Essays chronicling her experiences, entitled “Life on the Sea Islands,” appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, edited at that time by James Thomas Fields, in the May and June issues of 1864. Under increasing physical and emotional stress, Charlotte Forten became ill once again, experiencing terrible headaches, among other symptoms, and, with deep regret, left St. Helena and returned to Philadelphia.

After the conclusion of the Civil War, Ms Forten 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 and in 1873 she became a clerk at the Treasury Department.

On December 19 1878, at age 41, Charlotte married Francis Grimke, age 26, the biracial nephew of abolitionists Sarah Grimke and Angelina Grimke Weld.. Francis’ father was Henry Grimke, one of the brothers of Sarah and Angelina, and Francis’ mother was a house slave by the name of Nancy Weston. She bore two other sons by her master as well. [Sarah and Angelina had left the South for Pennsylvania. Their writing and public speaking on behalf of the abolitionist cause severed their relationship with their parents and siblings.]

In 1868, Angelina Grimke Weld took note of Francis and his two brothers, seeing the Grimke name mentioned in an African American newspaper. Angelina and Sarah recognized them as family members and supported Francis and his bother Archibald financially through college until both graduated from Lincoln University in 1870. They further assisted Francis through his studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, from which he graduated. He became ordained as a Presbyterian minister.

Charlotte Forten Grimke helped her husband in his ministry and organized a women’s missionary group. Francis became pastor at the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, and Charlotte continued to work for education and equality for African Americans.

15th Street Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C., c1899

15th Street Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C., c1899

In her marriage Charlotte Forten Grimke joined two of the most prominent family names of antebellum abolition. Charlotte and Francis Grimke 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 the little girl died in infancy. The couple were active in civil rights and Charlotte proudly helped Francis in activism with W. E. B. DuBois in the Niagara Movement and participation in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

After many years of suffering from poor health, Charlotte Forten Grimke died on July 22, 1914 at her home in Washington, DC, at the age of 77. Francis outlived his beloved wife by more than twenty years, dying on October 11, 1937. He never remarried after her death.






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