Charlotte Hawkins Brown Biography

Educator(1883–1961)
Charlotte Hawkins Brown was a teacher and founder of the Palmer Memorial Institute, a trailblazing Southern prep school for African-American students.

Synopsis

Charlotte Hawkins Brown, born on June 11, 1883 in Henderson, North Carolina, was educated in Massachusetts before returning to the South to teach African-American children. In 1902, she opened the Palmer Memorial Institute, named after a benefactor; it went on to become a famed 200-acre prep school offering black students rich course offerings. Brown was also a world-traveler and suffragist.

Early Life

Educator Lottie Hawkins was born in 1883, in Henderson, North Carolina. A granddaughter of a slave, she moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the age of 7. As a teenager, she met Alice Freeman Palmer, the second president of Wellesley College, while babysitting. As the story goes, Brown was pushing a stroller and reading aloud from her Latin book. Palmer overheard her and became a mentor to Brown and helped her advance her education.

Career in Education

While attending Salem Normal School, a junior college, Brown received an offer from the American Missionary Association (AMA) to teach in Sedalia, North Carolina, a small rural community. In the fall of 1901, she headed south. Brown spent much of her time helping in the community and writing letters. But her small school was in disrepair, and the AMA decided to close it the next spring. Many in Sedalia wanted to keep the school and for Brown to stay on as its teacher. After returning to Massachusetts, she met with Palmer who advised her go ahead with her plans for a school. Committed to her new venture, Brown campaigned tirelessly to raise funds for the school.

In 1902, Brown established the Palmer Memorial Institute, a preparatory school for African Americans, in Sedalia, North Carolina—naming it after her influential advisor. Over time, the school earned a reputation for excellence. Through her work for the school and in the field of education, she met influential people, such as fellow educator Mary McLeod Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Booker T. Washington.

In the 1920s, Brown spoke out as the Jim Crow laws, a series of laws and practices, primarily in the South, that treated African Americans as second-class citizens and denied them many of their rights. Around this time, the school expanded its offerings to include a junior-college program.

During the 1940s, Brown was increasingly in demand as a lecturer and speaker. She gave talks to college students, church goers and others on numerous topics, including education, race and even social graces. She was also a writer. In 1919, she published a short story entitled "Mammy: An Appeal to the Heart of the South." Later she wrote a book on polite behavior, The Correct Thing to Do, to Say and to Wear (1941).

Later Years and Personal Life

After 50 years with the school, Brown retired in October of 1952. Married to Ed Brown from 1911 to 1915, she had no children of her own. Brown did, however, raise several children of relatives—her brother Mingo's daughters and her aunt Ella Brice's four children.

Brown died in January 11, 1961, in Greensboro, North Carolina. The site of Palmer Memorial Institute is now a museum, honoring Brown's work to help African-American students.

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