Charlotte Forten Grimké

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Contributed by Leanne Daley

Charlotte Forten Grimké was brought up in a well-off prominent Black family from Philadelphia. Her grandfather was of fourth-generation African descent and became one of the wealthiest men of African descent after an apprenticeship under a sailmaker led to him taking over the business. They used this financial success to buy slaves freedom as well as fund the Underground Railroad. Her mother died when she was three, and her aunts and grandmothers stepped in to fill the role of a mother. Her father remarried and she lived with them until her father decided that he wanted her to be educated in integrated schools. By using family connections she was sent to live in Salem, Massachusetts with the Remond Family where, before the Civil War, there was a lively African American community learning in integrated schools. She graduated with the class of 1856 from Salem State and was the University’s first African American graduate. She was working to carry out her father’s wishes of becoming a teacher, and wrote that her school days in Salem were, “the happiest of my life….I have been fortunate enough to receive the instruction of the best and kindest teachers; and the few friends I have made are warm and true—New England”. By working through school she was able to secure a teacher position and became the first African American teacher in Salem public schools. 

Throughout her education and life, Charlotte faced challenges due to both her gender and race, but she turned to writing as a way to express her anger and advocate for solutions. She moved to Sea Islands in South Carolina as part of an effort to educate the previously enslaved people on abandoned plantations. Although she left after the death of her father, she wrote a two-part essay reflecting on her time there, depicting the new citizens as eager to learn, support themselves, and assume the responsibilities of citizenship. Once back in Massachusetts, she served as secretary of the Freedmen’s Union Commission’s Boston branch. Later she returned to teaching at an all-Black school in Washington, D.C., and clerked at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Charlotte married the Reverend Francis Grimké at age 41, and after her marriage, she continued her activism by joining the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and advocating for women’s suffrage. She also continued to write poetry and essays calling for an end to racial injustice and violence. Charlotte’s story is an inspiring one, and she was a trailblazer for African American women in education and activism. Her legacy lives on, and her contributions to the fight for equality and justice will never be forgotten.