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Charlotte Eugenia Hawkins Brown

Charlotte Eugenia Hawkins Brown

The African American educator and humanitarian Charlotte Eugenia Hawkins Brown (born Lottie Hawkins; 1882-1961) founded the Palmer Memorial Institute in North Carolina as a preparatory school for African Americans in the early 1900s and served as its president for over half a century.

The rural community of Sedalia, North Carolina, is the site of a memorial to Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown, African American educator-humanitarian. Sedalia is 90 miles from Henderson, where Brown was born in 1882. The granddaughter of slaves, Lottie moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, during her childhood. There she attended the Alston Grammar School, Cambridge English High School, and Salem State Normal School. She changed her name to Charlotte Eugenia in 1900 and acquired the name Brown through her brief marriage to Edward S. Brown whom she met at Cambridge.

Also in 1900, Brown met Alice Freeman Palmer, then president of Wellesley College, who became her friend and mentor. Toward the end of her first year at Salem, in 1901, Brown was introduced to a representative of the American Missionary Association, a philanthropic organization which operated schools for African Americans in the South. The AMA representative offered her a job as teacher of its school in Sedalia, Guilford County, North Carolina. Even as a teenager, Brown was a visionary. Troubled by the lack of educational opportunities for Blacks in the southern region, she accepted the AMA's offer and returned to her native state in 1901 to teach African American children.

The school was housed in Bethany Congregational Church, but closed only one term after Brown's arrival. Many Sedalia residents wanted the school to continue and appealed to Brown to stay as its principal. She accepted their offer and vowed to justify their faith in her capability. To maintain Palmer's growth and contribute to its further development, Brown continually engaged in fund-raising efforts which were directed primarily toward northern supporters. Her appeals were undergirded with singing and persuasive speeches, and she touched the hearts of people who were responsive to an opportunity to provide an educational facility for southern African Americans.

The renamed Palmer Memorial Institute gained national recognition as a preparatory school for African Americans. In the beginning the school's curriculum emphasized manual training and industrial education for rural living. Later the curriculum was changed to emphasize cultural education. As Palmer and its dynamic founder-president became nationally known, Brown's circle of associates expanded to include Mary McLeod Bethune, Nannie Burroughs, Eleanor Roosevelt, W.E.B. DuBois, and Booker T. Washington.

In 1911 Palmer Memorial Institute was fully accepted by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools at a time when few schools for southern African Americans had achieved such recognition. Over one thousand students graduated from Palmer during the presidency of Brown. Each student had been the beneficiary of counsel by a proud and able educator-humanitarian whose career was characterized by a determination to make them "educationally efficient, religiously sincere and culturally secure." After more than half a century as the school's director, she resigned in 1952.

A recipient of honorary doctorates from several colleges, including Wilberforce, Howard, and Lincoln, Brown became the first African American woman to be elected (1928) to the 20th Century Club of Boston, organized to honor leaders in education, art, science, and religion. Brown died in 1961. Palmer Memorial Institute was closed ten years later.

Further Reading

Published biographical information on Charlotte Hawkins Brown is sketchy and extremely limited in number. Alva Stewart's article on "The Charlotte Hawkins Brown Memorial Historic Site—Remembering the History of Black Education," Wilson Library Bulletin (October 1989); Constance Marteena's The Lengthening Shadow of a Woman (1977); The Negro Almanac—A Reference on the African American, Fifth Edition (1989); and the Encyclopedia of Black America (1981) are the best sources available at this time. Additional unpublished information is available through the Department of Cultural Resources, Historic Sites Section, Raleigh, North Carolina. □

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