Posted on 07/06/2008

Photo taken on June  1, 1912

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Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown
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Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown

Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown
Ms. Brown's 1912 wedding portrait

Charlotte Hawkins Brown (1870 - 1961), was born in Henderson, North Carolina, but grew up in Massachusetts after her family moved from the South. She was educated in Boston and had planned to finish her college education when two events changed her life.

First, she met Alice Freeman Palmer, a prominent New England woman, who was so impressed by Hawkins' determination to get an education that she became Brown's benefactor. Then, in 1901, Brown returned to the South to teach in a country school that was supported by a Northern missionary society in the town of Sedalia, North Carolina.

Quote: "I have devoted my life to establishing for Negro youth something superior to Jim Crowism."

She arrived during the worst years of the Jim Crow era. Blacks had been disfranchised as well as segregated and there was little money available for black schools. When the school's funding ended after two years, Brown decided to remain in Sedalia to start her own school. She went north to raise money and returned with $100, which she used to open the Palmer Memorial Institute, an academic and industrial school for African Americans, in 1902.

Brown's life was a balancing act. She passionately hated segregation and continually sought ways around it. When she went to town to visit her doctor or lawyer, she would arrange to enter into their office immediately upon her arrival. Thus, she avoided sitting in the Jim Crow section of the waiting room. When her students went to the movies or other cultural events, she would rent the theater for the day so that they did not have to sit in the "colored" section.

To raise funds for the school, she wrote letters to potential supporters. Her students learned French, Latin, and other academic subjects. Brown prepared her students to be leaders of their race.

In addition to building her school, Charlotte Hawkins Brown was active in the women's club and suffragist movements. She later became president of the North Carolina Association of Colored Women's Clubs, and she helped organize voter registration drives for black women and tried to get white club women to back suffrage for black women.

She saw herself as part of the freedom struggle that was taking place in the black community. The Palmer Institute became an educational success and remained open until a decade after her death, in 1961.

Charles W. Wadelington and Richard F. Knapp, 'Charlotte Hawkins Brown and Palmer Memorial Institute; What One Young African American Woman Could Do.'