Grimké, Charlotte L. Forten

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GrimkÉ, Charlotte L. Forten

August 17, 1837
July 22, 1914

Charlotte L. Forten Grimké, an abolitionist, teacher, and writer, was born into one of Philadelphia's leading African-American families. Her grandfather, James Forten, was a well-to-do sail-maker and abolitionist. Her father, Robert Bridges Forten, maintained both the business and the abolitionism.

Charlotte Forten continued her family's traditions. As a teenager, having been sent to Salem, Massachusetts, for her education, she actively joined that community of radical abolitionists identified with William Lloyd Garrison. She also entered enthusiastically into the literary and intellectual

life of nearby Boston, and even embarked on a literary career of her own. Some of her earliest poetry was published in antislavery journals during her student years. And she began to keep a diary, published almost a century later, which remains one of the most valuable accounts of that era.

Completing her education, Forten became a teacher, initially in Salem and later in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, she soon began to suffer from ill health, which would plague her for the rest of her life. Nevertheless, while unable to sustain her efforts in the classroom for any length of time, she did continue to write and to engage in anti-slavery activity. With the outbreak of the Civil War, she put both her convictions and her training to use, joining other abolitionists on the liberated islands off the South Carolina coast to teach and work with the newly emancipated slaves.

On the Sea Islands, she also kept a diary, which was also later published. This second diary, and two essays she wrote at the time for the Atlantic Monthly, are among the most vivid accounts of the abolitionist experiment. Like many teachers, Forten felt a cultural distance from the freedpeople but worked with dedication to teach and prove the value of emancipation. After the war, she continued her work for the freedpeople, accepting a position in Massachusetts with the Freedmen's Union Commission.

She also continued her literary efforts, which included a translation of the French novel Madame Thérèse, published by Scribner in 1869. In 1872, after a year spent teaching in South Carolina, Forten moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked first as a teacher and then in the Treasury Department. There she met the Reverend Francis Grimké, thirteen years her junior and pastor of the elite Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. They were married at the end of 1878.

The marriage was long and happy, despite the death in infancy of their only child. Apart from a brief residence in Jacksonville, Florida, from 1885 to 1889, the Grimkés lived in Washington, D.C. and made their Washington home a center for the capital's social and intellectual life. Although Charlotte Grimké continued to suffer from poor health, she maintained something of her former activism, serving briefly as a member of the Washington school board and participating in such organizations as the National Association of Colored Women. She did a small amount of writing, although little was published. Finally, after about 1909, her failing health led to her virtual retirement from active life.

See also Abolition; Forten, James; Grimké, Francis James; Gullah; National Association of Colored Women


"Charlotte Forten Grimké Papers." In Francis James Grimké Papers, Manuscript Division, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, D.C.

Cooper, Anna J. Life and Writings of the Grimké Family. 2 vols. 1951.

Stevenson, Brenda, ed. The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

dickson d. bruce jr. (1996)

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Grimké, Charlotte L. Forten

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