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Charlotte L. Forten


Charles Milton Bell, Charlotte L. Forten, c. 1870, albumen print, 3 1/2 × 2 1/2 (8.9 × 6.4), Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

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Educator, social activist, poet, and diarist Charlotte Forten (1837–1914) was born into a prominent African American family in Philadelphia. Her grandfather, James Forten Sr., established a successful sail-making business. Both her grandmother and grandfather were active members in the Philadelphia antislavery network, as was her father. Influenced by her family’s social and religious values, she became intent on a life of public service at a young age.

As a youth Forten was privately tutored, partly to shelter her from racial discrimination. She continued her studies in Salem, Massachusetts, living with relatives. Upon graduation in 1855, she was offered a teaching position at the Epes Grammar School in Salem, reportedly becoming the first African American teacher in the city’s schools. After federal authorities occupied South Carolina’s sea islands in 1861, the twenty-five-year-old Forten went there to help educate former slaves and their children who were in custody of the Union army and considered “contraband of war.”

In South Carolina Forten met Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave, abolitionist, and Union spy who was helping escaped slaves in the Beaufort area. She also met Colonel Robert Gould Shaw shortly before he was killed at Fort Wagner and later helped care for some of the soldiers wounded in that disastrous battle. As she nursed Shaw’s men and mended their uniforms, she commiserated with them over the tremendous loss of life at Fort Wagner. But she took pride in the regiment’s bravery: “Already, they, and the regiments of freedmen here, as well, have shown that true manhood has no limitations of color.” Many of Forten’s experiences in South Carolina were published in “Life in the Sea Islands,” in the Atlantic Monthly (1864). But her true legacy lies in the journals she kept between 1854 and 1864. Published a century later in 1953, they provide vivid accounts of the early years of emancipation.

After the war Forten settled in Washington, DC, where she taught in a black high school and later worked for the U.S. Treasury Department. In 1878 she married Francis James Grimké, a former slave, graduate from the Princeton Theological Seminary, and minister of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. Their home in the Dupont Circle neighborhood (at 1608 R Street, NW, a National Historic Landmark) became a hub for intellectuals and activists who continued to work for social justice.

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