Charlotte Forten Grimké

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Charlotte Forten Grimké

Charlotte Louise Bridges Forten Grimké (August 17, 1837 – July 23, 1914) was an African-American anti-slavery activist, poet, and educator. She grew up in a prominent abolitionist family in Philadelphia. She taught school for years, including during the war to freedmen in South Carolina. Later in life she married Francis James Grimké, a Presbyterian minister who led a major church in Washington, DC for decades. He was a nephew of the abolitionist Grimké sisters and active in civil rights.

Her diaries written before the end of the Civil War have been published in numerous editions in the 20th century and are significant as a rare record of the life of a free black woman in the North in the antebellum years.

Early life and education[edit]

Forten, known as "Lottie," was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Mary Virginia Wood (1815-1840) and Robert Bridges Forten (1813-1864), members of the prominent black Forten-Purvis clan of Philadelphia. Robert Forten and his brother-in-law Robert Purvis were abolitionists and members of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, an anti-slavery network that rendered assistance to escaped slaves. Forten's mother, paternal aunts Margaretta Forten and Harriet Forten Purvis, and grandmother, Charlotte Vandine Forten, were all founding members of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. Her grandfather, wealthy sailmaker James Forten, Sr., was an early equal rights activist in Philadelphia.[1]

While the Fortens were free northern blacks, Charlotte's mother, Mary Virginia Wood, was the daughter of wealthy planter, James Cathcart Johnston[2][3] of Hayes Plantation, Edenton, North Carolina, and granddaughter of Governor Samuel Johnston of North Carolina. Mary and her mother, Edith "Edy" Wood (1795-1846) were the slaves of Captain James Wood, owner of the Eagle Inn and Tavern in Hertford, Perquimans County, North Carolina.[1][2]

Edy Wood and James Cathcart Johnston carried on a longstanding relationship and had four daughters: Mary Virginia, Caroline (1827-1836), Louisa (1828-1836), and Annie E. (1831-1879).[2] Johnston emancipated Edy and their children in 1832 and settled them in Philadelphia in 1833 where they rented a Pine Street home for two years from Sarah Allen (missionary), widow of Richard Allen (bishop) of Philadelphia's Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church.[2] The following year, from 1835 through 1836, Edy Wood and her children boarded with Elizabeth Willson, mother of Joseph Willson, author of Sketches of Black Upper Class Life in Antebellum Philadelphia.[2]

After Mary Virginia Wood's 1836 marriage to Robert B. Forten, her mother Edy joined the Forten household and paid board to her son-in-law.[2] When Mary Wood Forten died of tuberculosis in 1840, Edy Wood continued to care for her grandchild Charlotte alongside Charlotte's young aunt, Annie Wood, who was only six years older. Upon Edy Wood's death in 1846, Charlotte was raised by various members of the Forten-Purvis family, and her aunt Annie lived at the Cassey House where she was adopted by Amy Matilda Cassey.[2][4]

In 1854, Forten joined the household of Amy Matilda Cassey and her second husband, Charles Lenox Remond, in Salem, Massachusetts, where she attended the Higginson Grammar School, a private academy for young women. She was the only non-white student in a class of 200. Known for emphasis in critical thinking, the school had classes in history, geography, drawing and cartography, and placed an emphasis on critical thinking skills. After Higginson, Forten studied literature and teaching at the Salem Normal School, which trained teachers. Forten cited William Shakespeare, John Milton, Margaret Fuller and William Wordsworth as some of her favorite authors.Her first teaching position was at Eppes Grammar School in Salem, becoming the first African American hired to teach white students in a Salem public school.[5]

Grimké assisted with her husband's ministry at Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, shown here as it was in about 1899
The Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church today


Forten became a member of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, where she was involved in coalition building and fund-raising. She proved to be influential as an activist and leader on civil rights. She occasionally spoke to public groups on abolitionist issues. In addition, she arranged for lectures by prominent speakers and writers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Senator Charles Sumner. Forten was acquainted with many other anti-slavery proponents, including William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, and the orators and activists Wendell Phillips, Maria Weston Chapman and William Wells Brown.

Teaching career[edit]

In 1856, finances forced Forten to take a teaching position at Epes Grammar School in Salem. She was the first African American teacher hired to teach white students in a Salem public school.[6] She was well received as a teacher but returned to Philadelphia after two years due to tuberculosis. At this point, Forten began writing poetry, much of which was activist in theme.[7] Her poetry was published in The Liberator and Anglo African magazines.

During the American Civil War, Forten was the first black teacher to join the mission to the South Carolina Sea Islands known as the Port Royal Experiment. The Union allowed Northerners to set up schools to begin teaching freedmen who remained on the islands, which had been devoted to large plantations for cotton and rice. The Union forces divided the land, giving freedmen families plots to work independently. Forten worked with many freedmen and their children on St. Helena Island. During this time, she resided at Seaside Plantation.[8] She chronicled this time in her essays, entitled "Life on the Sea Islands", which were published in Atlantic Monthly in the May and June issues of 1864.[9] Forten struck up a deep friendship with Robert Gould Shaw, the Commander of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment during the Sea Islands Campaign. She was present when the 54th stormed Fort Wagner on the night of July 18, 1863. Shaw was killed in the battle, and Forten volunteered as a nurse to the surviving members of the 54th.

Following the war in the late 1860s, Forten worked for the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, DC, recruiting teachers. In 1873 she became a clerk in the Department.

Marriage and family[edit]

In December 1878, Forten married Presbyterian minister Francis J. Grimké, pastor of the prominent Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., a major African-American congregation. He was a mixed-race nephew of white abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimké of South Carolina. Francis and his brother Archibald Grimké were the sons of Henry Grimke and Nancy Weston (a woman of color). At the time of their marriage, Forten was 41 years old and Grimke was 28.

On January 1, 1880, Charlotte and Francis' daughter Theodora Cornelia was born, but the child died less than five months later. Charlotte Forten Grimké helped her husband in his ministry, helping create important networks in the community, including providing charity and education. Many church members were leaders in the African-American community in the capital. She organized a women's missionary group, and continued her "racial uplift" efforts.

When Francis' brother Archibald Grimke was appointed as U.S. consul in the Dominican Republic (1894-1898), Francis and Charlotte cared for his daughter Angelina Weld Grimké, who lived with them in the capital. Angelina Grimké later became an author in her own right.

The Charlotte Forten Grimke House in Washington D.C. is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.[10]


Charlotte Forten Grimké's last literary effort was in response to The Evangelist editorial, "Relations of Blacks and Whites: Is There a Color Line in New England?" It asserted that blacks were not discriminated against in New England society. Forten Grimké responded that black Americans achieved success over extraordinary social odds, and they simply wanted fair and respectful treatment.[11]

Charlotte Forten Grimké was a regular journal writer until she returned north after teaching in South Carolina. After her return, her entries were less frequent, although she wrote about her daughter's death and her busy life with her husband. Her journals are a rare example of documents detailing the life of a free black female in the antebellum North.[5]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Julie Winch, A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, 279-80
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Mary Maillard, "'Faithfully Drawn from Real Life:' Autobiographical Elements in Frank J. Webb's The Garies and Their Friends," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 137.3 (2013): 265-271. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "maillard" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page). Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "maillard" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page). Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "maillard" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page). Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "maillard" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page). Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "maillard" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  3. ^ Johnston, James Cathcart
  4. ^ Cassey, Amy Matilda Williams 1808-1856.
  5. ^ a b Brenda Stevenson, ed., The Journals of Charlotte Forten, New York: Oxford Press, 1988
  6. ^ Terry Lee Marzell, Chalkboard Champions, Tucson, AZ: Wheatmark, 2012.
  7. ^ Bio: "Charlotte L. Forten Grimke", Poetry Foundation
  8. ^ "Seaside Plantation, Beaufort County (S.C. Sec. Rd. 77, St. Helena Island)". National Register Properties in South Carolina. South Carolina Department of Archives and History. Retrieved 25 February 2014. 
  9. ^ Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 13, No. 79, May 1864
  10. ^ National Historic Landmarks Program
  11. ^ Ray Billington, ed., The Journal of Charlotte Forten: A Free Negro in the Slave Era, New York: Norton, 1981.


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