Grimké, Charlotte L. Forten (1837–1914)
Grimké, Charlotte L. Forten (1837–1914)
African-American abolitionist, teacher, poet, and intellectual, from the well-known, politically active Forten family of Philadelphia, whose Journal, published after her death, is a rare account of a free and educated black woman's response to the racist culture which she hoped to change . Name variations: Charlotte L. Forten; also wrote as Miss C.L.F. and Lottie. Born Charlotte Lottie Forten on August 17, 1837, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died on July 22, 1914, in Washington, D.C., of a cerebral embolism; daughter of Mary Virginia (Woods) Forten, who died whenCharlotte was only three years old, and Robert Bridges Forten, who was a sailmaker and a political activist; was tutored at home until age 16, enrolled in Higginson Grammar School in 1854, graduated in 1855; prepared for teaching career at Salem Normal School, graduated in 1856; married Reverend Francis James Grimké (nephew of Sarah Moore Grimké and Angelina E. Grimké), on December 19, 1878; children: Theodora Cornelia (born January 1, 1880 and died six months later).
Death of her mother, Mary Virginia Woods Forten (August 1840); moved to Salem, Massachusetts to attend integrated public schools, Higginson Grammar School and Salem Normal School (1853–56); accepted an offer, the first ever to a black person, to teach at Epes Grammar School in Salem (June 1856); returned to Philadelphia to recover from a respiratory ailment, the first of many such efforts to maintain her fragile health (June 1857); returned to Salem to teach at Epes and then later at Higginson Grammar School, several times being forced to resign from teaching posts and move back to Philadelphia due to ill health (July 1857–summer 1862); applied for and acquired a teaching position in Port Royal, South Carolina, to teach contraband slaves held by Northern troops (Au-gust 1862–May 1864); moved to Boston and worked as secretary of the Teachers Committee of the New England Branch of the Freedmen's Union Commission (October 1865); taught at the Shaw Memorial School in Charleston, South Carolina (1871–72); taught at the M Street School, a preparatory high school in Washington, D.C. (1872–73); worked as first-class clerk in Fourth Auditor's Office of the U.S. Treasury in Washington, D.C. (1873–78); moved with husband Francis to Jacksonville, Florida, where he was pastor of the Laura Street Presbyterian Church (1885–89); moved back to Washington, D.C., when Francis took over pastorship of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church (1889); became a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women (1896); after spending 13 months confined to bed, died in her home (1914), age 76.
"To W.L.G. on Reading His 'Chosen Queen,'" in Liberator (March 16, 1850); "Glimpses of New England," in National Anti-Slavery Standard (April 2, 1859); "The Two Voices," in National Anti-Slavery Standard (January 15, 1859); "The Wind Among the Poplars," in National Anti-Slavery Standard (April 2, 1859); "The Slave Girl's Prayer," in Liberator (February 3, 1860); "Letter," in Liberator (December 12, 1862); "Interesting Letter from Miss Charlotte L. Forten," in Liberator (December 19, 1862); "Life on the Sea Islands," in Atlantic Monthly (Vol. 8, May 1864, pp. 587–596, and Vol. 8, June 1864); "Personal Recollections of Whittier," in New England Magazine (Vol. 8, June 1893, pp. 468–476); "A Parting Hymn," in The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements, by William Wells Brown (NY: Hamilton, 1863); (translated by Charlotte Forten) Émile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian, Madame Thérèse; or, The Volunteers of '92 (NY: Scribners, 1869); (edited by Ray Allen Billington) The Journal of Charlotte L. Forten (NY: Dryden, 1953, London: Collier-Macmillan, 1961); (edited by Brenda Stevenson) The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).
At age 16 when she moved away from her family in Philadelphia to attend integrated public schools in Salem, Massachusetts, Charlotte Lottie Forten began a diary. Not published until after her death, the diary would reveal an introspective nature that paved the way for an invaluable record of her life as a significant member of the activist community in the 19th century. The mention of friends, daily events, studies, and her own self-scrutiny are emblematic of concerns that would occupy Grimké throughout life. Her diary opens:
A wish to record the passing events of my life, which, even if quite unimportant to others, naturally possess great interest to myself, and of which it will be pleasant to have some remembrance, has induced me to commence this journal. I feel that keeping a diary will be a pleasant and profitable employment of my leisure hours, and will afford me much pleasure in other years, by recalling to my mind the memories of other days, thoughts of much-loved friends from whom I may then be separated, with whom I now pass many happy hours, in taking delightful walks, and holding "sweet converse"; the interesting books that I read; and the different people, places and things that I am permitted to see…. Besides this, it will doubtless enable me to judge correctly of the growth and improvement of my mind from year to year.
The family names "Forten" and "Grimké" have a place of honor in the American abolitionist movement because both families have long, distinguished histories of fighting oppression, especially slavery, in the United States. Charlotte Forten Grimké was a connecting link between these two aristocratic and socially-active families, both of which were influential in the anti-slavery movements of the 19th century. Born on August 17, 1837, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she belonged to the fifth generation of free Fortens in the United States. Her lifetime of devotion to the eradication of both slavery and racism reflect her family's devotion to these causes. Beginning with her grandfather James Forten, Sr., who was born free in Philadelphia in 1766 and was chiefly responsible for creating the family fortune in the sailmaking business, the Fortens produced a long line of reformists and abolitionists who took an active role in the political and cultural life of their community. Among his many public responses to slavery in the South and discrimination against free blacks in the North, Forten's participation in the petitioning of the U.S. Congress to establish guidelines for the abolition of slavery and to weaken the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 is probably among the most well known. He not only financially supported William Lloyd Garrison's publication of the Liberator—on occasion, Forten financed the publication and distribution of an entire issue when funds were low—but he also garnered support for a variety of antislavery organizations by hosting meetings in his home at 92 Lombard Street in Philadelphia.
James Forten's generous support and advocacy of liberal causes, from abolition to women's rights and world peace, had a great impact on his children, who also became politically active members of the antislavery community. Charlotte's father, Robert Bridges Forten, followed in her grandfather's footsteps both in the sailmaking industry and also in the abolitionist cause, as did her aunts Sarah, Harriet , and Margaretta Forten . The three sisters and their mother, Charlotte's grandmother and namesake, played a significant part in Charlotte Forten's early life. They served as caretakers for her after 1840, when her mother Mary Woods Forten died at 26, and as role models of politically active, intelligent, and strong women. Grandmother Charlotte Forten and her three daughters, as well as Charlotte's mother Mary, were all feminists as well as founding members of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. The extended family, including brothers-in-law Robert and Joseph Purvis, were involved at all levels of the antislavery fight, including Robert Purvis' active participation in the Underground Railroad (there was a trap door to hide fugitive slaves in his home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a place Forten often spent time as a child).
In conjunction with her family's active role in the abolitionist movement, which also included her father's participation in the Union army during the Civil War—for which he received the first military funeral for a black person in Philadelphia—came the presence of other influential advocates in the movement. Even after her father remarried and Charlotte moved from the home at 92 Lombard, she continued to exist in a social circle that included some of the most famous political activists of the day. Charlotte continued to live amidst leading intellectuals after she moved to Salem at age 16 to study in the public schools there. Moving into the home of Forten family friends, abolitionist Charles Lenox Remond and his wife Amy Matilda (Williams Cassey) Remond , Charlotte attended lectures by and visited with famous speakers in support of abolition, including William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, John Wittier, Abby Kelley and her husband Stephen Symonds Foster, Lydia Maria Child , Maria Chapman, William C. Nell, and William Wells Brown. The Remond home was similar to Forten's in its centrality to the abolitionist movement. Charles Remond, in fact, represented the American Anti-Slavery Society at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, where he stirred up excitement when he refused to tolerate gender-biased seating arrangements and sat in the gallery seats designated for women.
Charlotte Forten arrived at Salem in 1853 to attend the Higginson Grammar School. The only black student among the 200 women students, she was highly conscious of racial tensions and sensitive to racist behavior on the part of her classmates. She also felt pressure as a representative of a minority culture to perform in an exemplary way, which, combined with an already heightened sense of social duty, led her to work extremely hard. A lengthy entry from early in the first volume of her diary reveals the depth of her racial sensitivity as well as her desire to emulate the highly romanticized writing style popular in her day:
Wednesday, Sept. 12 . To-day school commenced.—Most happy am I to return to the companionship of my studies,—ever my most valued friends. It is pleasant to meet the scholars again; most of them greeted me cordially, and were it not for the thought that will intrude, of the want of entire sympathy even of those I know and like best, I should greatly enjoy their society…. I wonder that every colored person is not a misanthrope. Surely we have everything to make us hate mankind. I have met girls in the schoolroom [—] they have been thoroughly kind and cordial to me,—perhaps the next day met them in the street—they feared to recognize me; these I can but regard now with scorn and contempt…. These are but trifles, certainly, to the great, public wrongs which we as a people are obliged to endure. But to those who experience them, these apparent trifles are most wearing and discouraging; even to the child's mind they reveal volumes of deceit and heartlessness, and early teach a lesson of suspicion and distrust…. In the bitter, passionate feelings of my soul again and again there rises the questions "When, oh! when shall this cease?" "Is there no help?" "How long oh! how long must we continue to suffer—to endure?" Conscience answers it is wrong, it is ignoble to despair; let us labor earnestly and faithfully to acquire knowledge, to break down the barriers of prejudice and oppression. Let us take courage; never ceasing to work,—hoping and believing that if not for us, for another generation there is a better, brighter day in store,—when slavery and prejudice shall vanish before the glorious light of Liberty and Truth; when the rights of every colored man shall everywhere be acknowledged and respected, and he shall be treated as a man and a brother.
Forten read extensively, well beyond the scope of her requirements; a loose leaf sheet in her journal registered over 100 titles she had read in one year. She also became close lifelong friends with the principal of the Higginson School, Mary Shephard , with whom she often
traveled to antislavery lectures and other intellectual programs. She graduated from Higginson with "decided éclat" in 1855; her poem "A Parting Hymn" was selected by her classmates to be sung during her graduation ceremony. Forten enrolled in Salem Normal School in order to prepare herself for a teaching career, which she began upon her graduation in 1856. Her joy upon graduation was muted by the death of her hostess, Amy Remond, with whom Charlotte had established a close, almost mother-daughter bond. Charlotte was proud to be the first black woman to hold a teaching post in the city of Salem at Epes Grammar School. Another poem, "Poem for Normal School Graduation," was published in the Liberator in 1856.
I am hated and oppressed because God gave me dark skin. How did this cruel, this absurd prejudice ever come to exist? When I think of it, a feeling of indignation rises in my soul too deep for utterance.
—Charlotte L. Forten
The time between first assuming her teaching post at Epes in 1856 and leaving for a new position in South Carolina were years of alternating activity and recuperation for Forten. She enjoyed living in New England and participating in the intellectual climate of the Boston-Salem area. Although sources are less clear on exactly how much she enjoyed teaching, the occupation obviously served her deeply ingrained philosophy of service to her race and gave her the opportunity to continue her own scholarly pursuits. These included learning French, German, Latin and continual participation in local lectures on art, literature, and social problems. An excerpt from her June 15, 1858, journal entry reveals how seriously she took the responsibility of self-education as well as how critical she was of herself:
Have been under-going a thorough self-examination. The result is a mingled feeling of sorrow, shame and self-contempt. Have realized more deeply and bitterly than ever in my life my own ignorance and folly. Not only am I without the gifts of Nature,—wit, beauty and talent; without the accomplishments which nearly every one of my age, whom I know, possesses; but I am not even intelligent. And for this there is not the shadow of an excuse. Have had many advantages of late years; and it is entirely owning to my own want of energy, perseverance and application, that I have not improved them. It grieves me deeply to think of this.
Always introspective and sometimes self-critical, Forten was equally capable of turning her critical eye inward as she was of perceiving and commenting on society. One particular cultural practice which drew her ire as well as a critical comment in her journal was the patriotic celebration of "Independence Day" in the United States: "Saturday, July 4 . The celebration of this day! What a mockery it is! My soul sickens of it. Am glad to see that the people are much less demonstrative in their mock patriotism than of old."
Forten returned to Philadelphia to recuperate from headaches and general weakness for the first time in May of 1857. She was back in Salem teaching at Higginson Grammar School with her friend Mary Shephard in September of 1859, but relapsed and returned again to Philadelphia in 1860. Missing New England, Forten regretted that her ill health kept her from more direct activism. The work of caring for her health and that of active participation in her cause were in recurrent conflict:
Wednesday, March 3 . Announced my determination of leaving; to everybody's astonishment. I am sorely disturbed in mind. Constantly I ask myself "Am I doing right?" Yet I believe that I am. If I entirely lose my health now of what use will my life be to me? None. I shall only be dependent, miserably dependent on others. I would ten thousand times rather die than that.
It was during a return to Salem to teach summer school with Mary Shephard in 1862 that John Whittier suggested that Forten might contribute to the abolition movement and the black community by moving to the South to teach in schools established on former slaveowners' lands which had been captured by Northern troops. After being turned down by the Boston Educational Commission for such a post on the basis of her sex, Forten was accepted by the Philadelphia Port Royal Relief Association and gained a teaching post on Saint Helena Island, just off the South Carolina coast, which had been captured by Union troops in 1861. She traveled to Port Royal in October of 1862 and spent two challenging years there teaching basics to the contraband slaves, who were, in effect, freed as the result of Northern occupation of their "owners'" lands. The now-famous Port Royal experiment was a perfect match of Forten's ideas of racial equality and her interest in promoting opportunities for blacks.
But along with the strain of her still faltering health, she found herself an outsider among the almost exclusively white teachers and the distrusting ex-slaves. Forten revealed herself a product of her own upper-class upbringing in her delight in what she at first termed the island blacks' "wild" and "strange" singing. Though she eventually grew to appreciate the culture of the black ex-slaves, she remained most closely identified with the society of the more highly educated, mostly military presence on the island. She also spent a great deal of time with her dear friend Dr. Seth Rogers, whom she had met a few years earlier when she tried a water cure under his care.
In South Carolina, Forten continued to interact with influential people in the abolitionist cause. On January 31, 1863, she recorded a visit to Beaufort and a meeting with Harriet Tubman , the famous "conductor" of the Under-ground Railroad:
In Beaufort we spent nearly all our time at Harriet Tubman's otherwise [sic] "Moses." She is a wonderful woman—a real heroine. Has helped off a large number of slaves, after taking her own freedom. She told us that she used to hide them in the woods during the day and go around to get provisions for them. Once she had with her a man named Joe, for whom a reward of $1,500 was offered. Frequently, in different places she found handbills exactly describing him, but at last they reached in safety the Suspension Bridge over the Falls and found themselves in Canada. Until then, she said, Joe had been very silent. In vain had she called his attention to the glory of the Falls. He sat perfectly still—moody, it seemed, and w'ld not even glance at them. But when she said, "Now we are in Can[ada]" he sprang to his feet—with a great shout and sang and clapped his hands in a perfect delirium of joy. So when they got out, and he first touched free soil, he shouted an hurrahed "as if he were crazy"—she said. "How exciting it was to hear her tell the story…. My own eyes were full as I listened to her—the heroic woman!"
Forten had the opportunity to hear other harrowing stories from the ex-slaves on Saint Helena Island, including that of a woman—whom Forten thought must have been over a hundred years old—who recounted her capture from Africa. During her tenure on St. Helena, two letters to William Lloyd Garrison describing her experiences were published in the Liberator in 1862, and the Atlantic Monthly published her two-part essay "Life on the Sea Islands" in 1864.
It is unclear whether ill health, her father's death in April 1864, or other factors caused Forten to resign in May of 1864 and return to Philadelphia. Her relationship with her father appears to have been somewhat strained, both by his desire to have her return from Salem earlier in her career and by his inability to help support her financially. Despite the wealth of her family, Forten at times struggled to support herself, though refuge in Philadelphia was most probably always guaranteed. In October of 1865, she took a position as secretary of the Teacher Committee of the New England Branch of the Freedmen's Union Commission in Boston and acted as a liaison between the Northern fund raisers and the teachers of freed slaves in the South.
In October 1871, she returned to South Carolina to teach at the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial School. Undoubtedly, this teaching experience in Charleston held special significance to her since the school was committed to the memory of a man she had befriended during her time in Port Royal. Forten had been very disturbed by the news of his death in battle. After moving back North to Washington, D.C., in 1872, she held a one-year post at the now-famous Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, then known as the M Street School, before accepting the position of first-class clerk in the Fourth Auditor's Office of the U.S. Treasury Department in 1873, a position which she held until 1878.
During her time in the Treasury Department, Forten met and, on December 19, 1878, married Reverend Francis James Grimké when she was 41 years old. Although he was 13 years her junior and, having once been enslaved, did not have the privileged background Charlotte did, they were united in their intellectualism and deep commitment to racial issues. After the Civil War, Francis attended Lincoln University, graduating as valedictorian in 1870; earned a master's degree; and began a law degree at Howard University before finally settling on his vocation. He graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1878, the year of his marriage, and took over the ministry at the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. His education at both Lincoln and Princeton was partially funded by Angelina E. Grimké , a famous feminist and abolitionist who accepted Francis and his brother into her family when she found out that they were her nephews, the illegitimate sons of her brother Henry Grimké and his slave, Nancy Weston .
Charlotte stopped teaching after her marriage but continued to work, writing anti-racism essays both alone and with Francis and also continuing her lifelong interest in writing poetry. Their daughter, Theodora Cornelia, was born on January 1, 1880, but died six months later. Charlotte's poor health and advancing age—she was 43—made it unlikely that they would have another child. She did forge a special relationship with her niece, the poet Angelina Weld Grimké , who was born just two years after Theodora died and who lived with Charlotte and Francis while her parents were out of the country. Angelina and her father, Francis' brother Archibald Henry Grimké, eventually moved into Charlotte's home when Archibald separated from his wife, and Charlotte's relationship with Angelina was cemented.
Charlotte Forten Grimké's fourth journal ends in May of 1864 and her final one does not begin until November of 1885; she offers no explanation for the missing time. It may be possible that ill health, headaches and poor eyesight kept her from her journal. Except for a five-year period from 1885 to 1890, in which Charlotte and Francis lived in Jacksonville, Florida, and Francis was pastor of the Laura Street Presbyterian Church, the Grimkés remained in Washington, D.C., throughout the rest of Charlotte's life. She continued to concern herself with political and intellectual activism despite her health difficulties. Bedridden for her last 13 months, she nonetheless appeared to be happy to have her family around her and to discuss the defining matters of her life. She died in her home on July 22, 1914, at 76 years of age. Her clear vision and voice had a major impact on the antislavery community in which she participated, and her journals serve as lasting documentation of a time of American oppression and change.
Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition Within a Tradition. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1989.
Draper, James P., ed. Black Literature Criticism: Excerpts from Criticism of the most Significant Works of Black Authors over the Past 200 Years. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.
Grimké, Charlotte L. Forten. The Journal of Charlotte L. Forten: A Free Negro in the Slave Era. Ed. & introd. by Ray Allen Billington. NY: Collier Books, 1953.
——. The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké. Ed. & introd. by Brenda Stevenson. NY, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.
Harris, Trudier. "Charlotte L. Forten" in Afro-American Writers Before the Harlem Renaissance. (Vol. 50 in the Dictionary of Literary Biography series.) Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1986.
McKay, Nellie Y. "Charlotte L. Forten Grimké" in No-table Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.
Sumler-Edmond, Janice. "Charlotte L. Forten Grimké," in Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, Vol. 1: A-L. Ed. by Darlene Clark Hine. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1993.
Braxton, Joanne M. "Charlotte Forten Grimké and the Search for a Public Voice," in The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings, edited by Shari Benstock. NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988, pp. 254–271.
Grimké, Charlotte L. Forten. The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké. Ed. & introd. by Brenda Stevenson. NY, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. [Stevenson's is the most thorough of the biographies and this edition of the Journals is the only one to include the fifth volume. Unlike the edition by Billington, the Stevenson edition is unedited and therefore contains a broader sense of Forten's daily life.]
"Black Pioneers in American History," Educational Record Sales, New York.
"Charlotte Forten's Mission: Experiment in Freedom," starring Melba Moore , American Playhouse, PBS, 1985.
The manuscript collection of Charlotte Forten Grimké's journals and typescripts by her friend, Anna J. Cooper , are located at the Moorland-Springarn Research Center at Howard University.
Sharon L. Barnes , Ph.D. candidate, University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio