Charlotte Forten Grimké was an African-American teacher and one of the most influential anti-slavery activists of her time. She wrote extensive diaries covering the Civil War and post-war years which give an insight into the life of a free black woman in the North in the antebellum years.
Grimké was born in 1837 in Philadelphia, PA to a wealthy abolitionist family. Her grandfather was the well-known abolitionist James Forten Sr. and her mother, Mary Woods Forten, was a Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society member. Grimké grew up in Salem, Massachusetts where she was the only black student in a class of 200 who attended the Higginson Grammar School. She then continued her education at Salem Normal School. She then became the first African-American teacher to be hired in Massachusetts when appointed as a teacher at Eppes Grammar School. It is thought that she was possibly the first in the world to teach white students in a public school.
Grimké joined the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, where she was involved in coalition building and fund-raising. She organised lectures by prominent abolitionists and writers including Ralph Waldo Emerson as well as speaking to public groups herself. Two years after she was appointed at Eppes Grammar School, Grimké returned to Philadelphia following a bout with tuberculosis. She began to write poetry that reflected her activism, and this was published in The Liberator and other magazines.
In 1862, following the liberation of islands off of South Carolina by Union Troops, many black people fled there and established a community. Grimké was the first black teacher to travel to the Port Royal Experiment, where Northerners were able to set up schools to teach freedmen on the islands. Grimké detailed her time on the islands in essays entitled “Life on the Sea Islands”, which were published in Atlantic Monthly in the May and June issues of 1864. Her writing was influential in creating other schools. Grimké later became too ill to continue teaching and returned to Philadelphia once more where she was appointed as a clerk at the Philadelphia branch of the U.S. Treasury Department, where she recruited teachers. She later met Presbyterian minister Francis J. Grimké, and they were married in 1878. Grimké supported her husband in his ministry, and helped the community by providing charity and education as well as a women’s missionary group in Washington D.C.
Grimké was a regular journal writer for the majority of her lifetime until she returned north after teaching in South Carolina. Her writings detailed the fact that she simply could not understand why whites thought that they were better than blacks, and described meetings with influential activists such as Maria Weston Chapman and William Wells Brown. Her journals provide a rare insight into the life of a free black women leading up to, and during the Civil War. Grimké died in 1914, after a lifetime of fighting for the anti-slavery and later, women’s rights movement. Sadly, she was unable to see either of these causes win their civil rights. The Charlotte Forten Grimke House in Washington D.C. is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.