Charlotte Hawkins Brown

An American author, educator, and founder of the Palmer Memorial Institute.

Charlotte Hawkins Brown was born in Henderson, North Carolina, on June 11, 1883, to Caroline Frances and an estranged father. The granddaughter of former slaves, she was born in a time where large numbers of African Americans were moving north. She moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, at a young age, where she was raised and educated.

A precocious child, Charlotte Hawkins distinguished herself as a superior student and a gifted musician in the Cambridge public schools. She attended Allston Grammar School and the Cambridge English High School. As a high school senior she met a woman who was to have a profound influence on her life, and the chance meeting was a story she never tired of telling. (credit 2)

Charlotte Hawkins Brown, 1905. Photo credit: Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum

Employed as a babysitter for a Cambridge family, she was one day rolling a baby carriage down the street with one hand while carrying a copy of Virgil in the other. The juxtaposition attracted the attention of a passerby—Alice Freeman Palmer, second president of Wellesley College—who took an immediate interest in young Charlotte Hawkins. On learning that the girl planned to enter the State Normal School at Salem, Mass., following high school graduation, Mrs. Palmer insisted on assuming responsibility for her expenses.

In 1902, Charlotte Hawkins Brown took the train from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts to the rural town of Sedalia, North Carolina. What would compel a barely-nineteen-year-old African American woman to move from a relatively comfortable life in a progressive northeastern city to the deeply segregated Jim Crow South? Pulled by providence, Brown felt that the chance to teach at an American Missionary Association (AMA) school was God calling her home to her birth state of North Carolina. (credit 3)

Bound for what she thought was a well-established mission school at McLeansville, a whistle-stop eight miles east of Greensboro. Four and a half miles from McLeansville, at what would later be called Sedalia, Miss Hawkins found the school, a crude building that served as a combination church and school, peopled with fifty barefoot children. (credit 2)

The Palmer Memorial Institute

When the American Missionary Association decided to close the school a year later, Brown decided to create a school on her own. Coming from humble beginnings in a small blacksmith’s cabin, Brown continued raising money, eventually obtaining 200 acres and constructing two new buildings for her campus. The school was named the Palmer Memorial Institute, in honor of Alice Freeman Palmer, and was a day and boarding school for African Americans.

The girls (students were mostly girls because the boys were needed to work in the fields for their families) slept upstairs in a loft, the teachers slept downstairs, a large room was used for the classes. Teachers and students subsisted on two meals a day, mostly cornbread, molasses, peas, and beans. (credit 5)

Initially Brown followed the vocational curriculum of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, focusing on manual training and industrial education for rural living. But over the half century Brown gradually came to embrace liberal arts education. (credit 4)

Charlotte Hawkins Brown, 1905. Photo credit: Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum

As her school grew in size and reputation, Charlotte Hawkins achieved state and national recognition. She spent the academic year 1927–28 studying at Wellesley, and she lectured frequently at Smith, Wellesley, Mt. Holyoke, and Radcliffe colleges, and at Howard University, Hampton Institute, and Tuskegee Institute. She received six honorary degrees, among them honorary doctorates from Lincoln University, Pa., in 1937, Wilberforce University in 1939, and Howard University in 1944. (credit 2)

More than a thousand students attended the school from 1902 to 1970, when it closed. Today the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum is housed in the buildings of the Palmer Memorial Institute. The nonprofit Charlotte Hawkins Brown Historical Foundation works cooperatively with the state and other interested individuals and organizations to promote scholarship, research, and the wider preservation and appreciation of North Carolina’s African American heritage.

A remarkable example of achievement in the face of segregation and discrimination, the story of Charlotte Hawkins Brown and her school continues to provide a model of educational success born of dedication and hard work.

Brown’s papers are at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

A pioneer in education and race relations.

Besides her work as an educator Brown also became a talented essayist and short story writer. Throughout her adult life she was a dedicated anti-segregationist and an advocate for African American cultural pride and identity.

She was also actively involved in efforts to improve race relations in the South. She was a charter member of the Southern Commission for Interracial Cooperation, a charter member of the Southern Regional Council, a member of the executive board of the Southern Region of the Urban League, a member of the Negro Business League, and a member of the home nursing council of the American Red Cross. In 1940, Governor Clyde R. Hoey of North Carolina appointed her to the state Council of Defense, thereby breaking a southern precedent by naming a black to that prestigious committee. In 1945 she received the second annual Racial Understanding Award of the Council for Fair Play, a group of northern and southern people interested in promoting racial harmony. She was also the first black woman to be elected to the National Board of the YWCA and was elected to that post by white women in the South through membership in the South Atlantic Field Committee. As president of the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs in North Carolina, she led a successful drive for the establishment of a state-funded home for delinquent black girls. (credit 7)

Charlotte Hawkins Brown died in 1961.  Soon afterwards, North Carolina designated the Alice Freeman Palmer Institute the first historical landmark of North Carolina identified with an African American.