Charlotte Hawkins Brown

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Charlotte Hawkins Brown
Charlotte Hawkins Brown in wedding dress, 1912
Born(1883-06-11)June 11, 1883
DiedJanuary 11, 1961(1961-01-11) (aged 77)
OccupationFounder of the Palmer Institute
RelativesMaria Hawkins Cole (niece)
Natalie Cole (grandniece)
Carole Cole (grandniece)

Charlotte Hawkins Brown (June 11, 1883 – January 11, 1961) was an American author, educator, and founder of the Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina.[1]

Early life[edit]

Charlotte Hawkins Brown was born in Henderson, North Carolina, on June 11, 1883, to Caroline Frances and an estranged father. The granddaughter of former slaves,[2] she was born in a time where large numbers of African Americans were moving north. She moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, at a young age, where she was raised and educated.[3]

Along with her brother, Mingo, Charlotte attended public school in Cambridge. She was chosen as a speaker for her first graduation and following this attended the Cambridge English High School. Though her mother was hesitant, Brown was dedicated to her education and chose to attend Salem State Normal School. All of her schooling expenses were paid by Massachusetts Board of Education member Alice Freeman Palmer, after they met by chance and Palmer was taken aback by Brown’s dedication.[4]


After one year of college, Brown was hired to work at the Bethany Institute, a rural school for African American children, in Sedalia, North Carolina. Brown arrived to the school, run by the American Missionary Association, in 1901 to find it severely lacking in resources.

Image of Charlotte Hawkins Brown from At Calm Sedalia

When the American Missionary Association decided to close the school a year later, Brown decided to create a school on her own. Coming from humble beginnings in a small blacksmith’s cabin, Brown continued raising money, eventually obtaining 200 acres and constructing two new buildings for her campus. The school was named the Palmer Memorial Institute, in honor of Alice Freeman Palmer, and was a day and boarding school for African Americans. Brown worked tirelessly to create a safe haven for African American youth, she established the Palmer Memorial Institute’s board of trustees entirely of African Americans. Brown’s institute served as one of the only schools in North Carolina to offer college preparatory programs.[5]

By the 1920s, the Palmer Memorial Institute was an established and successful boarding school attracting students from around the country, many of whom went on to become educators. Brown attracted national attention for her efforts, lecturing frequently at colleges around the country and receiving several honorary degrees. In 1941 she published The Correct Thing To Do--To Say--To Wear, committing many of her educational philosophies and maxims in print.[6] She continued to run the school until her retirement in 1952.[7]

In addition to her work at the Palmer Institute, Brown was active in national efforts to improve opportunities for African Americans, including the Southern Commission for Interracial Cooperation and the Negro Business League. She was the first African American woman named to the national board of the YWCA. She was an honorary member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.


Brown's papers are at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

The restored campus buildings of the Palmer Memorial Institute are now the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum, which links Brown and Palmer Memorial Institute to the larger themes of African American women, education, and social history, with an emphasis on the contributions made by African American citizens to education in North Carolina. The museum's visitor center is located in the Carrie M. Stone Teachers' Cottage (1948), and features exhibits about Brown, the Institute and African American education in North Carolina. There is also a video about the school. Visitors can tour Brown's residence, known as Canary Cottage, which has been furnished to reflect the 1940s and 1950s, when the school was at its peak. Several dormitories, the dining hall, bell tower, teahouse and several teachers' cottages can also be seen.

Brown's brother, Mingo, was the father of jazz singer Maria Hawkins Cole, who became the wife of musician Nat King Cole and the mother of singer Natalie Cole and actress Carole Cole.


  1. ^ "Charlotte Hawkins Brown Biography". A&E Television Network. Retrieved 3 March 2018.
  2. ^ "Charlotte Hawkins Brown". NCpedia. Retrieved 3 March 2018.
  3. ^ "Charlotte Hawkins Brown Biography". A&E Television Network. Retrieved 3 March 2018.
  4. ^ Daniel, Sadia Iola. "The Early Life of Miss Charlotte Hawkins". North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. Retrieved 3 March 2018.
  5. ^ "What One Young African American Woman Could Do: The Story of Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown and the Palmer Memorial Institute". North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. Retrieved 3 March 2018.
  6. ^ Brown, Charlotte Hawkins (1941). The Correct Thing To Do--To Say--To Wear. Boston: Christopher Pub. House.
  7. ^ Burns, A. M., III. "Brown, Charlotte Hawkins". Dictionary of North Carolina Biography / NCpedia. Retrieved 14 April 2013.

Further reading[edit]

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