Charlotte Forten Grimke

Photo by C.M. (Charles Milton) Bell (ca. 1849-1893), taken in 1893 in Washington D.C. From the New York Public Library digital collections.

African American, Ethnography, Literature, Activism

Charlotte Forten Grimke


Charlotte Louise Forten was born free and raised in the prominent Forten-Purvis abolitionist family in Philadelphia’s elite African American community. Due to segregation, she was schooled at home until age 16. Afterwards, she was sent to a girls’ grammar school to finish her formal education, before seeking training as a teacher in Salem, Massachusetts. Forten was the first African American graduate of Salem Normal School (now Salem State University) in 1856, the first African American teacher in the Salem public school system, and the first African American teacher from the North to teach freed people in the South as part of the Port Royal Experiment from 1862-1864, in the newly liberated St. Helena Island, South Carolina. Recruited to teach in this Union-sponsored program designed to prove whether Black people could handle freedom, Forten taught newly emancipated people, of all ages, who had been issued farm land abandoned by southern plantation owners during the Civil War. Through teaching literacy, she sought to demonstrate that African Americans possessed the cognitive ability to be educated and successfully attain self-sufficiency.

Forten began keeping a journal at the age of 16. Her 1854–1864 and 1885–1892 journals chronicle her life as a free Black woman during the Civil War, her abolitionist activity and encounters with racism, her poetry, her experience of culture shock during her time teaching newly freed people in the Sea Islands and her students’ efforts to grapple with racial injustices. In her journals, Forten was the first known person to document Black spirituals, which she published as “Life on the Sea Islands” in the May and June 1864 issues of The Atlantic Monthly. In this two-part work, Forten relayed her experiences as a teacher on St. Helena Island, and transcribed the texts of the Sea Island hymns of her students. This article brought the work of the Port Royal Experiment to the attention of readers in the North, who were unlikely to know of conditions in the South.

In 1878, Forten married Francis J. Grimké, a former slave and member of a prominent abolitionist and suffragist family, who was minister of Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C, and would become a co-founder of the NAACP. Throughout her life, Forten Grimké, was active in civil rights and social justice efforts, also contributing to establishing The Colored Women’s League in 1891 and the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. Her relevant works for folklore include:

“Life on the Sea Islands” in The Atlantic Monthly (1864)

The Journal of Charlotte L. Forten, ed. by Ray Allen Billington, (1953)

The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké, ed. by Brenda E. Stevenson (1988)

Wanda G. Addison

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