Charlotte Forten biography
SynopsisCharlotte Forten was born on August 17, 1837, in Philadelphia, PA. She kept a diary of her involvement with the abolition movement and became the first African-American hired to teach white students in Salem, MA. In 1862, Forten participated in the Port Royal Experiment, educating ex-slaves on St. Helena Island, South Carolina and recording her experiences in a series of essays. She died in 1914.
Educator, writer, and activist. Born Charlotte Forten on August 17, 1837, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Born into a wealthy and influential African-American family, Charlotte Forten is best known for her personal writings, which offered insights into late 19th century America. Her diaries chronicle the social and political issues of the times—the fight to end slavery, the Civil War, and the state of race relations.
Forten had a very comfortable upbringing. Her grandfather, James Forten, helped make his fortune with an invention that assisted sailors with heavy sails. He was an outspoken member of the abolitionist movement and supporter of William Lloyd Garrison's antislavery publication The Liberator. Forten's parents were also active in the movement. Her mother, Mary, helped establish the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, and her father Robert often lectured in support of the abolitionist cause.
When Forten was 3 years old, her mother died. An only child, Forten spent much of her early years in solitude, educated by tutors. When she was of school age, her father decided to send Forten to an integrated school in Salem, Massachusetts, where she lived with the Remond family.
While living on the East Coast, Forten began keeping a diary. In it, she wrote about her involvement in the antislavery movement in the Boston area. She deepened her connections to family friends in the movement, such as Garrison and John Greenleaf Whittier, during her time there.
After completing her studies, Forten became a teacher in Salem. She was the first African-American teacher hired to teach white students in the town. Unfortunately, Forten had to resign after two years because of ill health. Some reports indicate that she may have had tuberculosis. Returning to Philadelphia, Forten started writing poetry while she tried to regain her health.
In 1862, Forten traveled to St. Helena Island, South Carolina, to work as a teacher. There, she participated in what became known as the Port Royal Experiment. During the Civil War, the Union Army took over Port Royal, a Confederate military base in South Carolina. The area was home to thousands of slaves who had been abandoned by their owners. Many of them lived in isolation on the Sea Islands off the coast. The former slaves were largely illiterate, and some did not know English. The Union Army wanted to help these people learn to live independently on local lands.
For 18 months, Forten worked with children, adults and soldiers stationed there as part of this program. The only African-American teacher to participate in the experiment, Forten's efforts to help the project became a personal mission.
Her efforts often reached outside the classroom, and she found herself visiting the homes of the various families in order to instill "self-pride, self-respect, and self-sufficiency," she once wrote.
Forten wrote about her experiences in her diary, and a series of her entries were later published in the form of the essay series "Life on the Sea Islands" for the Atlantic Monthly in 1864.
Once again, Forten had to abandon her work for health reasons. She began to experience terrible headaches and went home to Philadelphia in 1864. For several years, Forten worked for the Teachers Committee of the New England Freemen's Union Commission. She later returned to teaching, spending time in Charleston, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C.
In 1878, Forten married Francis J. Grimke, a Presbyterian minister. He was the nephew of two famous social activists, Sarah and Angelina Grimke. The couple had one child together, a daughter named Theodora Cornelia, who died during her infancy.
Throughout the rest of her life, Forten wrote and spoke out on social issues, including women's rights and racial prejudice. She also supported her husband's work at the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.
Forten died on July 23, 1914, in Washington, D.C. Her diaries, which have been published numerous times over the years, have proved to be her most lasting legacy. With her writings, she has provided an eyewitness account of such a pivotal and turbulent time in American history. Forten also offers her readers a glimpse at such famous figures as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and many other leading activists of her day.