Forten, Charlotte L

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

FORTEN, Charlotte L.

Born 17 August 1837, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died 23 July 1914, Washington, D.C.

Wrote under: Charlotte Forten, Lottie

Daughter of Robert B. and Mary Virginia Forten; married Francis J. Grimké, 1878; children: one, who died in infancy

Charlotte L. Forten, a member of Philadelphia's most prestigious black family, was tutored at home until 1854, when she went to live with black abolitionist Charles Lenox Remond, in Salem, Massachusetts, where she attended Higginson Grammar School. She graduated from Salem Normal School in 1856 and taught white students at Epes Grammar School. Despite ill health, Forten was a member of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society. She read widely, studied French and German, and wrote occasional poems and essays.

In 1862 Forten secured employment in a Port Royal, South Carolina, school for the children of ex-slaves. She also taught adults and thus contributed to the success of the Port Royal Experiment, an effort to prove ex-slaves were educable and could be trained as soldiers. Forten returned to Philadelphia in 1864 and published an account of her Southern experience in the Atlantic Monthly.

Forten married a Presbyterian minister and abolitionist. They had one child, who died in infancy. Except for a brief period in Florida, Forten lived in Washington until her death.

Forten's poetry, sometimes published under the pseudonym "Lottie," expresses the sentimentality and piety characteristic of poetry catering to the poorest of popular Victorian tastes. Her essays generally lack literary merit. The best is "Life on the Sea Islands" (Atlantic Monthly, May/June 1864), which presents material also contained in the Journal account of her years in the South. Only Forten's Journal entitles her to a place among significant women writers of the 19th century.

Forten's dedication to the abolitionist cause brought her into contact with all the leading abolitionists; so the Journal contains personal responses to Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Jonathan Parker, and William Wells Brown. Her record of literary figures whom she knew includes Whittier, who became her valued friend, and Lowell and Emerson, whose lectures she attended. The first half of the Journal is useful as a record of the day-to-day activities of a genteel, young black woman of the 19th century. The entire journal is pervaded by Forten's racial awareness. Though her family has been free for three generations, Forten identified with the slaves. For her, the Fourth of July was a mockery of the principle of democracy as no man, white or black, could be free in a land where slavery existed. She deplored the transatlantic telegraph because it brought England "so very near this wicked land." Similarly, she preferred Salem to Philadelphia because of the indignities blacks experienced in Pennsylvania, where they were barred from restaurants and denied seats on public conveyances and where captured slaves were dragged through the streets. Yet she was so sensitive to the lack of total acceptance in Salem that she made no friends among her schoolmates, who could not accept her wholeheartedly.

The final sections of the Journal are valuable for their picture of the transition of ex-slaves into free people. There are anecdotes about slave experience, about precarious escapes from masters evacuating their homes in the face of Union advances, and accounts of children dying from whooping cough. But the closing entries also tell the story of Forten's appreciation of the music of the freed slaves; of her satisfaction at seeing children and adults learn to read and write, though their spoken language was Gullah; and of her pride while watching field hands become brave soldiers determined to defend their freedom.

The language of the Journal is informal except for the convention of addressing it as "dear A." It seldom lapses into colloquialisms, and the only example of such freedom is in the use of "Secesh" for the secessionists or an occasional military expression. Its tone is made personal by such private observations as Forten's wondering if Browning—or any man—could really merit the devotion in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry; her thoughts about her ill health and its interference with her ambitions; and the realistic descriptions of her hospital experience, with her sincerely expressed response to death and injury. The Journal ends on 15 May 1864, when Forten made her last entry at the Oliver Fripp Plantation in Port Royal.

The Journal is written with candor and clarity. The New England entries reveal a sensitive person determined to study and learn all that she can in order to be a living demonstration of the capabilities of black people. The Journal is the record, as well, of a talented and gracious young woman as outsider—because she is black.

Other Works:

The Journal of Charlotte Forten: A Free Negro in the Slave Era (reissue, 1981). The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké (reissue, 1989). The Poetry of Charlotte L. Grimké (database, 1995). A Free Black Girl Before the Civil War: The Diary of Charlotte Forten, 1854 (2000).

The papers of Charlotte L. Forten are at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Bibliography:

Barksdale, R., and K. Kinnamon, Black Writers of America (1972). Braxton, J. M., Charlotte Forten Grimké (1837-1914) and the Search for a Public Voice (1985). Burchard, P., Charlotte Forten: A Black Teacher in the Civil War (1995). Hughes Wright, R., A Tribute to Charlotte Forten, 1837-1914 (1993). Katz, W. L., ed., Two Black Teachers during the Civil War (1969). Longsworth, P., Charlotte Forten, Black and Free (1970). Oden, G., The Journal of Charlotte L. Forten, the Salem-Philadelphia Years (1854-1862) Rexamined (1983). Rider, J., "Charlotte Forten and the Port Royal Mission" (thesis, 1995). Rose, W. L., Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (1964). Wilson, E., Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (1962). Inscribing the Daily: Critical Essayson Women's Diaries (1996). Woman's "True" Profession: Voices from the History of Teaching (1981).

Reference works:

Black American Writers Past and Present (1975). NAW.

Other references:

African-American Poetry of the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology (1992). African American Profiles in History Volume Three (recording, 1995). Charlotte Forten's Mission Experiment in Freedom (audiovisual, 1991). Half Slave, Half Free Part 2: Charlotte Forten's Mission (audiovisual, 1992). Historic Black Abolitionists (audiovisual, 1996). Richard Allen Story; Charlotte Forten (recording, 1987).

—GWENDOLYN A. THOMAS