Charlotte Forten Grimké

Abolitionist, Poet, Essayist, Teacher

Charlotte Forten Grimké
Charlotte Forten Grimké. Fotosearch / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Charlotte Forten Grimké Facts

Known for: writings about the schools in the Sea Islands for former slaves; teacher at such a school; antislavery activist; poetry; wife of prominent black leader Rev. Francis J. Grimké; influence on Angelina Weld Grimké
Occupation: teacher, clerk, writer, diarist, poet
Dates: August 17, 1837 (or 1838) – July 23, 1914
Also known as: Charlotte Forten, Charlotte L. Forten, Charlotte Lottie Forten

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Mary Virginia Wood Forten, died 1840
  • Father: Robert Bridges Forten, sailmaker, died 1865; son of James Forten and Charlotte Vandine Forten
  • Siblings?: Wendell P. Forten, Edmund L. Forten (ages 3 and 1 respectively in the 1850 census)

Education:

  • Higginson Grammar School, Salem, Massachusetts, graduated 1855
  • Salem Normal School, graduated 1856, teaching certificate

Marriage, Children:

  • Husband: Rev. Francis James Grimké (married December 9, 1878; Presbyterian minister and civil rights activist; son of a white slaveholder and his slave mistress; nephew to abolitionist and feminist activists Sarah and Angelina Grimké)
  • Daughter: Theodora Cornelia, January 1, 1880, died later that year

Charlotte Forten Grimké Biography

Family Background

Charlotte Forten was born into a prominent African American family in Philadelphia.  Her father, Robert, was the son of James Forten (1766-1842), was a businessman and antislavery activist who was a leader in Philadelphia’s free black community, and his wife, also named Charlotte, identified in census records as “mulatto.”  The elder Charlotte, along with her three daughters Margaretta, Harriet and Sarah, were founding members of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society along with Sarah Mapps Douglass and 13 other women; Lucretia Mott and Angelina Grimké were later members of the biracial organization as was Mary Wood Forten, Robert Forten’s wife and mother of the younger Charlotte Forten.

  Robert was a member of the Young Men’s Anti-Slavery Society who, later in life, lived for a time in Canada and England.  He made his living as a businessman and farmer.

The young Charlotte’s mother Mary died of tuberculosis when Charlotte was only three. She was close to her grandmother and aunts, especially her aunt, Margaretta Follen.

  Margaretta (September 11, 1806 – January 14, 1875) had taught in the 1840s at a school run by Sarah Mapps Douglass; Douglass’ mother and James Forten, Margaretta’s father and Charlotte’s grandfather, had together earlier founded a school in Philadelphia for African American children.

Education

Charlotte was taught at home until her father sent her to Salem, Massachusetts, where the schools were integrated.  She lived there with the family of Charles Lenox Remond, also abolitionists.  She met many of the famous abolitionists of the time there, and also literary figures.  James Greenleaf Whittier, one of those, was to become important in her life.  She also joined the Female Anti-Slavery Society there and began writing poems and keeping a diary.

Teaching Career

She began at Higginson school, and then attended the Normal School, preparing to become a teacher. After graduation, she took a job teaching at the all-white Epes Grammar School, the first black teacher there; she was the first African American teacher hired by Massachusetts public schools and may have been the first African American in the nation hired by any school to teach white students.

She became ill, probably with tuberculosis, and returned to live with her family in Philadelphia for three years.

  She went back and forth between Salem and Philadelphia, teaching and then nurturing her fragile health.

Sea Islands

In 1862, she heard of an opportunity for teaching former slaves, freed by the Union forces on islands off South Carolina’s coast and technically “war contraband.”  Whittier urged her to go teach there, and she set off for a position at Saint Helena Island in the Port Royal Islands with a recommendation from him.  At first, she was not accepted by the black students there, due to considerable class and culture differences, but gradually became more successful relating to her charges.  In 1864, she contracted smallpox and then heard that her father had died of typhoid. She returned to Philadelphia to heal.

Back in Philadelphia, she began to write of her experiences. She sent her essays to Whittier, who got them published in two parts in the May and June 1864 issues of Atlantic Monthly, as “Life on Sea Islands.”  These authors helped to bring her to the attention of the general public as a writer.

“Authoress”

In 1865, Forten, her health better, took a position working in Massachusetts with the Freedman’s Union Commission.  In 1869, she published her English translation of the French novel Madam Therese. By 1870, she listed herself in the Philadelphia census as “authoress.” In 1871, she moved to South Carolina, teaching at Shaw Memorial School, also founded for education of the recently-freed slaves.  She left that position later that year, and in 1871 – 1872, she was in Washington, DC, teaching and serving as assistant principal at Sumner High School.  She left that position to work as a clerk.

In Washington, Charlotte Forten joined the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, a prominent church for the black community in DC.  There, in the late 1870s, she met the Rev. Francis James Grimké, who was a newly-arrived junior minister there. 

Francis J. Grimké

Francis Grimké had been born a slave. His father, a white man, was a brother of the abolitionist sisters Sarah Grimké and Angelina Grimké. Henry Grimké had begun a relationship with a mixed-race slave, Nancy Weston, after his wife died, and they had two sons, Francis and Archibald.  Henry taught the boys to read. Henry died in 1860, and the boys’ white half-brother sold them. After the Civil War, they were supported in gaining further education; their aunts discovered their existence by accident, acknowledged them as family, and brought them to their home. 

Both brothers were then educated with the support of their aunts; both graduated from Lincoln University in 1870 and Archibald went on to Harvard Law School and Francis graduated in 1878 from Princeton Theological Seminary.

Francis Grimké was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, and, on December 9, 1878, 26-year-old Francis Grimké married 41-year-old Charlotte Forten.

Their only child, a daughter, Theodora Cornelia, was born in 1880 on New Year’s Day, and died six months later.  Francis Grimké officiated at the 1884 wedding of Frederick Douglass and Helen Pitts Douglass, a marriage that was considered scandalous in both black and white circles.

In 1885, Francis and Charlotte Grimké moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where Francis Grimké was minister of a church there.  In 1889 they moved back to Washington, where Francis Grimké became the lead minister of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church where they had met. 

Charlotte Forten Grimke’s Later Contributions

Charlotte continued publishing poetry and essays.  In 1894, when Francis’ brother Archibald was appointed counsel to the Dominican Republic, Francis and Charlotte were legal guardians to his daughter, Angelina Weld Grimké, who was later a poet and a figure in the Harlem Renaissance and wrote a poem dedicated to her aunt, Charlotte Follen. In 1896, Charlotte Forten Grimké helped to found the National Association of Colored Women.

Charlotte Grimké’s health began to deteriorate, and in 1909 her weakness led to a virtual retirement. Her husband remained active in the early civil rights movement, including the Niagara movement, and was a founding member of the NAACP in 1909.  In 1913, Charlotte had a stroke and was confined to her bed.  Charlotte Forten Grimké died on July 23, 1914, of a cerebral embolism. She was buried at Harmony Cemetery in Washington, DC.

Francis J. Grimké survived his wife by almost twenty years, dying in 1928.