Charlotte Forten Grimke
Junious Ricardo Stanton
As we celebrate Women’s History Month there are countless Black women we are unaware of whose contributions to society, the country and the world need to be shared on a wider level. One such woman is Charlotte Forten Grimke. Charlotte Louise Forten was born in Philadelphia on August 17, 1837 into an extremely wealthy African-American family. Charlotte Forten’s grandfather and parents amassed their fortune as sail makers and business owners in Philadelphia. Charlotte’s mother died when she was three years old from tuberculosis and she was raised by her father with the help of her aunts and grandparents.
The Forten family was prominent in the anti-enslavement movement. Charlotte Forten was educated at an early age by tutors because of racial apartheid in the schools in Philadelphia and her father didn’t want her attending segregated schools. When Charlotte became an adolescent her father James Forten sent her to Salem Massachusetts to board with Charles Lenox Remond and his family. The Redmonds were another prominent African-American abolitionist family. There she attended the integrated schools in Salem. Early in her childhood Charlotte began keeping diaries and she continued writing for the rest of her life.
Following completion of her studies at the Higginson Grammar School for Girls where she was the only Black student, Charlotte enrolled in a Normal School which trained students to become teachers. Miss Foten graduated from what would later become Salem State University. She was hired as a teacher in the Salem school system where she may have been the first Black teacher in America to teach white students.
Miss Forten grew up surrounded by abolitionists and anti-enslavement activists all her life. When she heard of an opportunity to teach enslaved Blacks living in the Sea Islands of South Carolina who had been “liberated” by the advancing Union Army, she went to Saint Helena Island in 1862 to teach. In 1864 she contracted smallpox and returned to Philadelphia when she learned her father had died. Over the years Charlotte experienced several bouts with pneumonia.
In Philadelphia she wrote about her experiences and several were published in a white mainstream magazine of the time. She returned to South Carolina to teach in several schools created specifically to educate the newly freed Blacks. Later she migrated to Washington D.C. to teach, serve as a principal and subsequently work as a clerk at the US Department of Treasury. In the late 1870’s while still in Washington D.C. she joined the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church where she met the man she would eventually marry, Francis Grimke a young minister at the church.
Francis J. Grimke was born on November 4, 1890 the son of Henry Grimke a white man who had raped his enslaved mother Nancy Weston. Henry Grimke was an attorney and plantation owner whose wife died. Nancy Weston was his slave who served as a nurse and nanny for his children. Weston she had two sons by Henry Grimke.
Ironically Henry Grimke’s sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke were prominent in the abolition movement but they were unaware of Francis and his brother’s existence. Both were enslaved and Francis and his older brother Archibald were subsequently sold by their white half brother after their father died. Francis and Archibald had been taught to read by their father. After the war they eventually came to the attention of their aunts who recognized and accepted them as family.
The Grimke sisters helped further the education of their two nephews. Both graduated from Lincoln University Archibald went to Harvard Law School and Francis attended Princeton Theological Seminary. Francis was ordained as a Presbyterian minister
In 1885 following their marriage Charlotte and Francis (who was fifteen years younger than Charlotte) moved to Florida where the Rev Grimke became senior minister at a church in Jacksonville. They remained there for four years.
The couple returned to Washington D.C. in 1889 where Rev. Grimke became the pastor of Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. Rev. Grimke was active in civil rights and was a cofounder of the Niagara Movement and the NAACP.
Charlotte supported her husband, she continued to write and engage in activism advocating for women’s suffrage. Her writings included poetry and essays denouncing violence and injustice. In 1896 Charlotte Forten Grimke was a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women.
Mrs. Grimke’ health began to decline and by 1909 she was forced to retire from active travel. She suffered a stroke in 1913 and was bedridden. She made transition on July 23, 1914. She was interred in Washington D.C. Her diary entries entitled The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimke were published posthumously. Charlotte Forten Grimke is a role model for us today because of her lifetime commitment to human rights, service to others, education and activism.