...in 1855, Charlotte Forten passed the entrance examination for the Salem Normal School, one of four colleges recently established in Massachusetts to train teachers. She was the school's first black student. Eighteen months later, she would be its first black graduate. After teaching for several years in the Salem public schools, Charlotte Forten volunteered to travel to the Sea Islands off South Carolina. Here, where the Union Army was in control, ex-slaves had come seeking freedom and education. Charlotte Forten had lived her whole life among well-educated, prosperous, northern blacks. In South Carolina, she experienced severe culture shock, but she persevered, recognizing that the freed slaves had a burning desire, and a great need, to learn.
Seventeen-year-old Charlotte Forten was understandably apprehensive when she took the entrance examination for the Salem Normal School in the early spring of 1855. Her father Robert did not approve. He wished his daughter to return to her grandparents' home in Philadelphia. If Charlotte was admitted, she would have to borrow the money for tuition. And if she completed the course, she had no idea if she would get a job. Most daunting of all, Charlotte Forten was black, and no black student had ever been admitted to a teacher training program in Massachusetts.
Fortunately, she had the support of Salem's free black community. With their help and financial assistance from an anonymous white benefactor, she not only graduated from the Normal School but had a distinguished career as a teacher, author, and advocate for freed slaves.
Charlotte Forten came from one of the country's leading black families. Her grandfather James had risen from employee to owner of a sail making company and amassed a fortune of over $100,000. Charlotte grew up in comfort, traveled widely, and enjoyed a wide variety of social and cultural activities.
The Fortens were deeply committed to ending slavery and combating racism. Her grandfather petitioned Congress to end the slave trade and published pamphlets protesting racist laws. He played a central role in the American Anti-slavery Society. The Forten women helped found the Philadelphia Female Anti-slavery Society. The Fortens were part of a network of prosperous, well-educated, and socially-active blacks in New York, Boston, and Salem, all of them engaged in anti-slavery work.
Charlotte's mother died when she was a small child. An advocate of racial justice, her father expected his daughter to do her part. He educated Charlotte at home until she was 16. In spite of the strong Quaker influence, Philadelphia's schools were still rigidly segregated. In 1853 Robert Forten sent Charlotte to complete her schooling in Salem.
Robert Forten chose Salem because the port city of 8,000 had a reputation for tolerance and cosmopolitanism. Salem merchants traded with every corner of the world. People from the Middle East, China, India, and Africa were not an unusual sight on Salem's streets. A number of successful and public-spirited African-Americans made Salem their home. Perhaps the city's greatest attractions for Robert Forten was that, after a long and difficult fight, the black community had won an end to segregation in the city's public schools.
Forten arranged for his daughter to live with the Remonds, one of Salem's most respected black families. Like the Fortens, the Remonds were ardent abolitionists. They sheltered fugitive slaves, hosted black and white anti-slavery lecturers, and were active in various anti-slavery organizations. One son, Charles, was the anti-slavery movement's first black lecturer and the first black to address the Massachusetts legislature. His sister Sarah also became an abolitionist lecturer; she courageously traveled to Great Britain, where she raised a considerable amount of money for the cause.
Charlotte Forten thoroughly enjoyed living with the Remonds. She had an active social life attending lectures, playing music and cards, taking walks and studied hard. She proved to be a gifted student and talented writer. Even in Salem, however, a black girl found it difficult to make friends with her white classmates. Charlotte was fortunate that the principal was a white woman who treated her with affection and respect.
As graduation approached, her teachers and friends urged her to take the entrance examination for the Salem Normal School. Convinced that education was essential for racial betterment, Charlotte's father had long urged her to become a teacher. She herself believed that her studies enabled her "to do much towards changing the condition of [her] oppressed and suffering people."
Once she enrolled at the school, she found the teaching "so thorough and earnest that it increases the love of knowledge and the desire to acquire it." The day she received her diploma was, she told her diary, "among the happiest in my life."
Few schools were willing to hire an African-American to teach white students, but the principal of the Normal School helped her secure a position in one of Salem's integrated public schools at an annual salary of $200. When she resigned because of poor health in 1858, a Salem newspaper complimented her on her performance and praised the school for undertaking the "experiment" of hiring a black teacher for white children.
Although she never enjoyed robust health, Charlotte Forten was the first and one of the only black teachers to heed the call to go to the Union-controlled Sea Islands off South Carolina. The freed slaves on St. Helena Island desperately needed teachers if they were to have a chance at a better life.
Charlotte taught 140 children in a single classroom. An educated and refined northerner, she had difficulty dealing with people who had only recently been chattel slaves. She was surrounded by dire poverty and squalor; the Sea Island climate was oppressive, and yellow fever was a constant threat. The ex-slaves students spoke the Gullah dialect and practiced African customs that she found strange. The danger of Confederate attack was ever-present, and she was terrified of falling into enemy hands. Even the Union soldiers showed little respect for a black woman.
But she was deeply moved by the former slaves' passion for freedom and by their deep desire to learn. "I do not believe that there is a man, woman, or even a child that would submit to be made a slave again," she wrote home. "I wish some of those persons at the North who say the race is hopelessly and naturally inferior, could see the readiness with which these children, so long oppressed and deprived of every privilege, learn and understand." She remained on St. Helena for a year and a half, until her frail health forced her to return North.
After the Civil War, she continued teaching and writing. In 1878, at the age of 41, she married Francis Grimké, the 28-year-old minister of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. Although she was often ill, Charlotte Forten Grimké spent the rest of her life working for the advancement of her race. In 1896 she was a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women.
The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimke, ed. by Brenda Stevenson (Oxford University Press, 1988).
"To Educate the Heart, " by Gwendolyn Luella Rosemond and Joan M. Malone, in The Sextant, 1988.
We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century, ed. by Dorothy Sterling (W.W. Norton, 1984).