Charlotte Hawkins Brown 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.
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. Often, she had to pretend to have a vocational school in the mold of those championed by Booker T. Washington. However, 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.
--adapted from the website The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow
CHARLOTTE HAWKINS BROWN (V.0.) (ACTOR) I sit in the Jim Crow car, but my mind is rejuvenated to strive harder to build a race that will some day rise in majesty and break down every wall of segregation in American life.
NARRATOR Leaving Massachusetts where she had been educated, she returned to her home state North Carolina to teach.
TRACEY BURNS (DIRECTOR, CHARLOTTE HAWKINS BROWN MUSEUM) When Charlotte Hawkins got off the train, she was...there was no station. So, she had no idea where she was. It was in the middle of the woods. So, I think it was a little fear. This is not New England. I’m in a different place. Where am I? I’m in this state. I have no idea. I don’t remember. Yes its my home state. And where do I go from here? I think she adjusted well.
NARRATOR In 1901, she converted an old blacksmith’s shed into a school building and opened the Alice Freeman Palmer Memorial Institute. For the next two decades, she struggled to raise money to build her school into an outstanding educational institution. Because white donors were reluctant to support a school that developed minds rather than domestic skills, Brown had to use subterfuge.
GLENDA GILMORE (HISTORIAN) When Brown begins teaching there, she has to say that she has a vocational school.
TRACEY BURNS (V.O.) I think the reason that whites wanted African Americans to continue the agriculture and domestic skills, was that it kept them at a certain level. It did not give them the education that inspired them to do more.
GLENDA GILMORE (V.O.) (HISTORIAN) Her teachers said... That you would pretend to have a vocational school on the outside, and then you’d go in your classroom and teach them French, or Latin or anything that you knew.
RUTH TOTTON (FORMER TEACHER, PALMER MEMORIAL INSTITUTE) People said she had high ‘falutin’ ideas and high aims for her students and she was teaching them the three R’s but she was also intent on teaching them leadership qualities.
TRACEY BURNS During the early years, in order to raise money for the school, Dr. Brown had to come up with some type of fund-raising solution and she came up with letter writing- writing to all of the Northerners, telling them what they learned at the school, what they were doing, writing and requesting support- anything they could give at that time.
CHARLOTTE HAWKINS BROWN (ACTOR) Dear Mrs. Worth: I have worried your patience no doubt but I have delivered the message of my soul to you. It is not the message of an individual but the cry of a struggling race. Please make all checks payable to the treasurer.
WOMAN'S VOICE (ACTOR) I am sending you ten dollars for your school which I hope will be put to good use. I advise you to instruct your girls to be virtuous, for moral looseness is an unfortunate quality of many young women of your race.
GLENDA GILMORE (HISTORIAN) Her life was a balancing act. Her life was an act of trying to appease white people, white liberals who would give the school money, and who would try to help the school in other ways, and then, on the other hand, to try to work in an African American freedom struggle that she clearly saw as ongoing, that she clearly saw herself as part of.
TRACEY BURNS She fought fights that people didn’t usually fight in those days. They just went along with the system. But I think that at...if at any time she could go against the system, that’s what Dr. Brown did. She took them to the movie theater, where she would have special showings so that they didn’t have to sit up in the balcony.
RUTH TOTTON She was, as we always said, a woman ahead of her times. She was smart enough to use every opportunity to develop the students.
ELIZABETH MEAD (FORMER STUDENT) She taught us that we could do anything that anyone else could do if we wanted to, if we tried to. She always taught us that we could be as good as anybody else regardless of what our color was. And we appreciated that. Cause you go around thinking you can’t do this or you will never be nothing or something like that. She told us it wasn’t true. We could be anything we wanted to be.
CHARLOTTE HAWKINS BROWN (ACTOR) Recognizing the need of a cultural approach to life I have devoted my life to establishing for Negro youth something superior to Jim Crowism. Sometimes the prejudice is so great I feel that I can't stand it a day longer. But then I look in the delicate faces of the children and determine to stick it out no matter what the cost.
GLENDA GILMORE (V.O.) She never accepted the fact that she was going to have to live like this, and she never accepted the fact that her students were going to have to live like this.
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