January 14, 2016

Charlotte Forten in Salem, Massachusetts

            In November 1853 at the age of 16, Charlotte Forten, the fourth generation of a wealthy and influential free black family arrived in Salem, Massachusetts to stay at the home of Charles Lenox Remond and his family at 9 Dean Street (present day Flint Street.) [1] The Remond’s were abolitionist and previous neighbors of Charlotte and her family in Pennsylvania, who relocated to desegregated Salem. Upon her arrival in Salem, Charlotte enrolled at the Higginson Grammar School located on Broad Street, [2] under the guidance of principal and mentor Mary Shepard. [3] The private school for girls, unlike those in Forten’s native Pennsylvania, was integrated; offering a higher form of education to freed blacks, a strong concern of Charlotte’s father.
National Women's History Museum
            In May of 1854, Forten began keeping a written diary of her day-to-day life that resulted in a series of journals, spanning a decade, these illustrates the experiences of a prominent, freed black woman in northern antebellum and Civil War era America. Charlotte’s journals cover pivotal moments in the abolitionist movement and capture her eloquent voice of activism.
            Charlotte Forten graduated from the Higginson Grammar School in March of 1855. A poem of Forten’s titled “A Parting Hymn” was awarded best of her class and chosen to be recited at the school commencement ceremony. [4] After her completion of grammar school, Forten enrolled in Salem Normal School, located at 1 Broad Street. [5] That same month, a poem of Charlotte’s, “To W.L.G. (William Lloyd Garrison) on Reading his ’Chosen Queen’” was published in Liberator Magazine, a periodical focused on black radicalism and progress for black Americans. In September of that year, Charlotte joined Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, which held regular lecture series at Salem’s Lyceum and Mechanic Hall.[6]
            A month prior to Charlotte’s graduation from Salem Normal School, she accepted a teaching position at Epes Grammar School, located at Aborn Street in Salem. [7] Salem Normal School’s commencement ceremony, similar to that of Higginson Grammar School, featured a poem read by Charlotte Forten, this one titled “Poem for Salem Normal School Graduation.” Charlotte continued her teaching position at Epes until June of 1857, when she left for a month to return to Pennsylvania to recuperate following a respiratory tract illness, a pattern that would occur frequently over the next several years.  In December of 1857, Charlotte relocated from the Remond family home on Dean Street to live with Caroline Remond Putnam and her husband at Higginson Square.  Only a few short months later, Charlotte returned to Pennsylvania, again due to poor health, where she remained for a year. [8] In that time she continued to submit her writing to local and national publications and was recognized in the Christian Recorder, National Anti-Slavery Standard and Anglo-African Magazine. [9]
            In 1859, Forten returned to Salem, where she had accepted a position at her alma-mater Higginson Grammar School. On January 14, 1860, Forten’s poem “The Slave Girl’s Prayer” was published in the National Anti-Slavery Standard. Over the next two years Charlotte rotated between living in Philadelphia and Salem, continuing to teach in both cities. [10]
            Having closely followed the onset and progression of the Civil War, Charlotte returned to Philadelphia in September of 1862 in order to apply for the Port Royal Relief Association, an experimental program sponsored by the U.S. Government in an attempt to educate and rehabilitate the thousands of freed slaves that were left displaced in South Carolina due to the war. On October 22, 1862 she embarked on her journey with the association. Ever the diarist, Forten continued to chronicle her life while stationed on the Sea Islands. These chronicles would be published in multiple installments in the Atlantic Monthly and Liberator. Charlotte remained on the Sea Islands teaching and volunteering as a nurse until May of 1864, a year prior to the end of the war. She returned to Philadelphia to continue writing, later accepting a position with the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington D.C., where she would meet her husband Reverend Francis Grimk√©.  Charlotte’s writing and activism continued until her death in 1914 [11]
            Charlotte Forten Grimk√©’s legacy lives on through her diaries, the results of her activism and, through the recognition of Salem Normal School (present day Salem State University) who’s focus on diversity and leadership in excellence dates back to Charlotte’s attendance.

Read more and view artifacts relating to the life of Charlotte Forten



 Forten, Charlotte L., and Brenda E. Stevenson. The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988

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