Facts About Charlotte Forten Grimké
“Provoking isn’t it? That when one is most in need of sensible words, one finds them not.”
Charlotte Forten Grimké was a writer, poet, nurse, educator and dedicated activist who spent her life fighting for the abolition of slavery and equal rights for all. She was born 17th August 1837 to wealthy black activist parents, Robert and Mary Forten, and went on to lead an extraordinary life - a life that we should all take the time to learn about.
We thought we’d go into more detail about the roles she had throughout her life (many of which interlinked with one another), and her various accomplishments.
Being born into a wealthy family meant that Charlotte was fortunate enough to receive an excellent education. Her father instilled the importance of learning in her from a young age, and up until the age of sixteen she was taught by tutors at home in Philadelphia. Following this, she was sent to live with friends in Salem, Massachusetts where she would attend Higginson Grammar School. Despite schools being both progressive and integrated there, she was the single African American in the entire student body.
As her time at Higginson came to an end, Charlotte had decided that she wanted to be able to support herself going forward, and so enrolled at a teacher training school in Salem. She graduated in 1856 and went on to accept her first ever teaching position (though there would be plenty more to follow) at The Epes Grammar School. Charlotte was the first African American teacher in Salem public schools.
Charlotte traveled to St Helena Island in 1862 after the Federal Authorities launched an urgent appeal for teachers to educate the 10,000 former slaves. The emancipated individuals had been left with the land to farm for themselves but were in desperate need of an education - being literate was a crucial step towards full liberation. Charlotte spent two years teaching children (and some adults too) how to read and write.
Ill health and the death of her father saw her leave St Helena Island and (after a short stint as a nurse) return to teaching. She taught in various places such as Boston, Charleston and Washington DC, before starting work as a clerk in the U.S Treasury Department in 1973.
Charlotte volunteered as a nurse for a brief period of time during the American Civil War where she cared for the wounded soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment of the United States Coloured Infantry. Like other African American nurses who served throughout the war, she received no compensation from the government. The gratification she got from knowing that she was doing the right thing, along with the friendships she formed with the soldiers she cared for, was enough for her. She gave up nursing due to illness.
Charlotte was a fantastic writer and poet. She kept a diary throughout her life (published posthumously), which is considered by many to be the most important African American diary of the nineteenth century. It provides us with an extremely useful insight into the abolitionist movement, and is a key reason as to why we know so much about the remarkable person she was.
Being born into a wealthy free family meant that Charlotte was luckier than most African Americans of her time, but she still faced racism from much of the wider society. Despite the limitations placed on her, she made sure she used the privilege that she did have for the greater good by campaigning for equal rights. Her journal is a window into a different time and is an invaluable educational tool.
Charlotte grew up around individuals - both family and family friends - who played major roles in the activism surrounding the abolition of the slave trade. As a young woman she made sure to work hard for an education and equip herself with knowledge and a profession that she could later use to help the cause. Charlotte also published a number of her poems in anti-slavery publications and encouraged other black women to participate and involve themselves in the abolitionist crusade.
Some of her most prominent activist work came after her marriage to Frank James Grimké. Frank was a former slave who entered the Princeton Theological Seminary after gaining his freedom. Members of the Grimké family were influential in the abolitionist movement. Frank’s brother became president of the Washington D.C branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.
Charlotte remained committed to her activism throughout her married life and continued to publish her poems and various essays. She also picked up a more active role in the National Association of Coloured Women and the cause of women suffrage.
The two remained dedicated to the cause and each other for the rest of their lives.
Charlotte Forten Grimké passed away in 1914. Her life embodied activism, and her illimitable drive to give a voice to those who had been silenced will have an impact for years to come.
We’ve left a number of resources below where you can learn more about her life. We encourage you to take the time to read them!