Charlotte Forten was the first northern African-American schoolteacher to go south to teach former slaves. A sensitive and genteel young woman, she brought intense idealism and fierce abolitionist zeal to her work. As a black woman, she hoped to find kinship with the freedmen, though her own education set her apart from the former slaves. She stayed on St. Helena Island for two years, then succumbed to ill health and had to return north. In 1864, she published “Life on the Sea Islands” in The Atlantic Monthly, which brought the work of the Port Royal Experiment to the attention of Northern readers.
Charlotte Forten was born in Philadelphia in 1837 into an influential and affluent family. Her grandfather had been an enormously successful businessman and significant voice in the abolitionist movement. The family moved in the same circles as William Lloyd Garrison and John Greenleaf Whittier: intellectual and political activity were part of the air Charlotte Forten breathed.
She attended Normal School in Salem, Massachusetts and began her teaching career in the Salem schools, the first African-American ever hired. But she longed to be part of a larger cause, and with the coming of the Civil War Forten found a way to act on her deepest beliefs. In 1862, she arrived on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, where she worked with Laura Towne. As she began teaching, she found that many of her pupils spoke only Gullah and were unfamiliar with the routines of school. Though she yearned to feel a bond with the islanders, her temperament, upbringing and education set her apart, and she found she had more in common with the white abolitionists there. Under physical and emotional stress, Forten, who was always frail, grew ill and left St. Helena after two years.
Today, Forten is best remembered for her diaries. From 1854-64 and 1885-92, she recorded the life of an intelligent, cultured, romantic woman who read and wrote poetry, attended lectures, worked, and took part in the largest social movement of her time. She was determined to embody the intellectual potential of all black people. She set a course of philosophical exploration, social sophistication, cultural achievement and spiritual improvement. She was, above all, dedicated to social justice.
In her later life, she lived in Washington D.C. and continued to support equal rights for African-Americans. She married the minister Francis Grimke, nephew of the crusading Grimke sisters. After many years as an invalid, she died in 1914, having been a voice for equality throughout her life.
In Her Own Words
“Monday, October 23, 1854: I will spare no effort to prepare myself well for the responsible duties of a teacher, and to live for the good I can do my oppressed and suffering fellow creatures.” — Diary entry
“Sunday, January 18, 1856: But oh, how inexpressibly bitter and agonizing it is to feel oneself an outcast from the rest of mankind, as we are in this country! To me it is dreadful, dreadful. Oh, that I could de much towards bettering our condition. I will do all, all the very little that lies in my power, while life and strength last!” — Diary entry
“Wednesday, November 5, 1862: Had my first regular teaching experience, and to you and you only friend beloved, will I acknowledge that it was not a very pleasant one.” — Diary entry
“Thursday, November 13, 1862: Talked to the children a little while to-day about the noble Toussaint [L’Ouverture]. They listened very attentively. It is well that they should know what one of their own color could do for his race. I long to inspire them with courage and ambition (of a noble sort), and high purpose.” — Diary entry
“The first day of school was rather trying. Most of my children are very small, and consequently restless. But after some days of positive, though not severe, treatment, order was brought out of chaos. I never before saw children so eager to learn.” — Life on the Sea Islands
“The long, dark night of the Past, with all its sorrows and its fears, was forgotten; and for the Future — the eyes of these freed children see no clouds in it. It is full of sunlight, they think, and they trust in it, perfectly.” — Life on the Sea Islands
“I shall dwell again among ‘mine own people.'” I shall gather my scholars about me, and see smiles of greeting break over their dusky faces. My heart sings a song of thanksgiving, at the thought that even I am permitted to do something for a long-abused race, and aid in promoting a higher, holier, and happier life on the Sea Islands.” — Life on the Sea Islands