Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
A child of an activist free Black family, Charlotte Forten Grimké was born in Philadelphia on August 17, 1837. She was both an abolitionist and an advocate for the education of African Americans. The Journal of Charlotte L. Forten: Free Negro in the Slave Era (1953) collecting her journal entries has become an important document in the history of the Abolitionist movement.
Charlotte Forten Grimké was born August 17, 1837, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was the daughter of Robert Bridges Forten, a mathematician and public speaker, and Mary Virginia Forten, a founding member of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. Both of her parents were outspoken abolitionists, exposing her to the movement from an early age. Her mother died in 1840, and her father was plagued by financial insecurity; thus Grimké was raised in equal measure by her aunt, Harriet Forten Purvis, and her grandmother in the Quaker suburb of Byberry.
The daughter of an affluent family, despite the racism and institutional pressures of the time, Charlotte was privately educated to avoid the segregation of public schooling. In 1854, she moved to Salem, Massachusetts, and attended the Salem Grammar School. She was the only Black student in her entire class, and though she didn’t make many friends due to contemporary prejudice, she demonstrated great writing skills; one of her poems was even read at the school’s commencement ceremony. She graduated in 1855 and then moved on to Salem’s Normal School. Two years later, she obtained her teaching certificate and became a member of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society.
While she was at the Salem school, Grimké also began her most famous work: her five journals which chronicle the abolitionist movement around the Civil War. These works were not originally intended for publication, but were released post-mortem in 1953, and are now a crucial primary source in the study of the movement. The Journal of Charlotte L. Forten: Free Negro in the Slave Era also reveals her personal struggles with her self-image and self-worth, which likely influenced her health. In addition to this, Grimké submitted poetry to abolitionist publications.
Grimké was an abolitionist like her father. She wrote of racial discrimination against enslaved and freed Blacks and segregation. She became good friends with many other abolitionists of her time, including Charles Remond and Lydia Child. Though discrimination troubled Grimké, she used it as fuel to better herself. She wanted to prove that the Black community was just as capable of being productive members of society as white people. She taught herself several languages, including German, Latin, and French. She became well-read in the classics and contemporary literature.
After finishing school, Grimké became the first African American teacher at Epes Grammar School. She was the first African American in Massachusetts to teach white students. Though she was accepted by the school, she sadly had to leave her position in 1858 when she contracted tuberculosis.
Once she recovered, she spent a few years alternating teaching positions in Philadelphia and Salem, taking frequent time off due to illness. Grimké returned to Philadelphia and asked her friend, the famous poet John Greenleaf Whittier, to write a recommendation so that she could teach for the Port Royal Experiment, a school set up to educate formerly enslaved Southerners. Eight thousand men, women, and children were in need of education, and both the Union command and Grimké felt that this was a chance to prove how powerful education could be to formerly enslaved people. Those whom the North managed to free and bring to the island were among the first to be educated in this effort.
Grimké taught at a small school on St. Helena Island, off the coast of South Carolina, from 1862 to 1864 and was one of the first to provide education to this wave of newly emancipated people. While there, she wrote a two-part essay titled "Life on the Sea Islands" (1864) about her experiences, published in the Atlantic Monthly newspaper. However, Grimké’s experience was not completely positive, and she felt isolated from both the African Americans she taught and from her prejudiced white colleagues also teaching on the island.
In May of 1864, Grimké returned to Philadelphia due to another illness, where she taught and wrote poetry. After her recovery, she worked as a secretary for Teacher Committee of the New England Branch of the Freedmen’s Union Commission in Boston from 1865 to 1870. She attempted to return to teaching from 1870 to 1873, first in South Carolina and then in Washington, D.C., but ended up retiring from the field completely. Instead, Grimké stayed in Washington, D.C. and worked as a clerk for the United States Treasury starting in 1873. On December 19, 1878, Charlotte married Francis James Grimké, a Presbyterian minister, a Princeton graduate, and a formerly enslaved man. Their daughter, Theodora Cornelia, unfortunately died in 1880, only a few months into her infancy.
Grimké continued writing poetry after her teaching career, publishing several pieces throughout the 1880s. Her activism also continued; after a move to Florida, Grimké helped to develop social services and a stronger sense of community in the local African American population. In 1896, she became a co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women. However, after a life of fervent activism, Grimké became very ill in her last few years, and was often bedridden.
Charlotte Grimké died of a cerebral embolism in Washington, D.C., on July 23, 1914.
The Journal of Charlotte L. Forten: Free Negro in the Slave Era. Ray Allen Billington, ed. New York: Dryden Press, 1953.
"Life on the Sea Islands." Atlantic Monthly. May-June, 1864.
Barnes, Sharon L. Grimké, Charlotte L. Forten (1837—1914). Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Anne Commire, ed. Vol. 6. Detroit: Yorkin Publications, 2002. 548-554.