Charlotte Hawkins Brown: Education under Difficulties

The year 1901 was not a promising time for Charlotte Hawkins Brown, a young black woman, to return to her native North Carolina and teach in a mission school.

White supremacists had overthrown North Carolina’s Fusionist government in 1900. The new  governor was proud of the amendment to the state constitution that had “the deliberate purpose of depriving the negro of the right to vote, and of allowing every white man to retain that right.” [1] Schools were separate and unequal in spite of the 1896 Supreme Court decision that said they could  be separate if they were equal.

Yet, given that environment, Brown’s experience is not as grim as one would think. Her life is not only inspiring, but it also sheds light on the many people—black and white, from north and south—who tried to help southern blacks. They were unable or unwilling to challenge the power structure, but they went around it.

Brown’s life also illustrates the cross-currents in black education represented by Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, both of whom Brown knew.


From North Carolina to Cambridge, Massachusetts

Hawkins was born as “Lottie Hawkins” in Henderson,  North Carolina, in 1883. (She became Charlotte in high school and Hawkins Brown after a brief marriage in 1911.)  Her mother, feeling the hostility toward blacks after Reconstruction ended, moved her extended family north when Lottie was five years old. And not just north, but to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where there was a  supportive black community. Even today, the Cambridge Black History Project shares its pride in the prominent people (including Hawkins Brown) who lived there.

Charlotte attended grammar school and then Cambridge English High School. While in high school, she started babysitting so she could buy a silk slip to wear under her graduation dress (as the other girls were doing).

One day, a white woman was struck by the sight of Charlotte—a black teenager pushing a stroller and reading Virgil, in Latin! The woman, Alice Freeman Palmer, had been president of Wellesley College and soon became a friend and mentor to Charlotte.

Palmer Memorial Institute

Hawkins was 18 years old when she started teaching at the ramshackle school owned by the American Missionary Association in rural Guilford County. The AMA closed the school at the end of the year because of lack of funds. But Hawkins had already started fund-raising, and in 1902 she began to create her own school in almost exactly the same place. Named after Alice Palmer, the Palmer Memorial Institute lasted for nearly 70 years.

Alice Palmer opened doors to New England philanthropists in the few years before she died. But Hawkins was gutsy enough to find her own supporters as well. In the summer of 1902 she went to Gloucester, Massachusetts, and held fund-raising events at local hotels, complete with music and the recitation of a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem. She went to see Charles Guthrie at New York’s posh Regis Hotel. Rejected by a valet, she sent a telegram to Guthrie and obtained an interview—and financial support.

Back in North Carolina, she won the approval of Charles McIver, an influential white educator in Greensboro—and financial support from his wife. At the same time, she developed a board of trustees that included several local black educators.

At first, the pupils at her school were of many ages. Only after helping Guilford County create a public school for black children was she able to concentrate on high school students, both boys and girls, and on training potential teachers.

The Educational Divide

During the early 20th century, there was much discussion in the United States about what kind of education black people should have. Booker T. Washington was well-known for creating the Tuskegee Institute and emphasizing industrial and vocational arts. He became extremely popular—he even had a famous dinner at the White House—because the public approved of limited, practical education for blacks.

On the other side of the debate, and much less popular, was W. E. B. Du Bois. A brilliant historian and sociologist, he received his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1895 and initially taught at black universities (Wilberforce and Atlanta). In 1903 he wrote an article proposing that efforts be made to find and support the “talented tenth”—the cream of the black population. In other words, industrial education was not enough. [2]

Intellectually, Brown probably agreed with Du Bois; she was a perfect example of how a good education could produce success in talented black people. But many potential donors were in line with Washington’s emphasis on practical education (and his  promise in a famous Atlanta speech that he was not seeking social equality).

So Brown emphasized—both in her conversations and her actions—the vocational education many donors wanted to see. She expanded the Palmer property to allow for a farm that would give students agricultural skills. But she added other subjects too—art, music, the humanities, math, and science. Gradually, the Palmer Memorial Institute became the most admired school for blacks in the country. Students from around the nation boarded there.

The Indignities She Experienced

Brown’s life was no bed of roses. The authors of her (thoroughly researched)  biography are perhaps too upbeat in describing how well she balanced many forces: her desire for a good school, the prejudices of white donors, and  the periodic indignities, as well as the honors. [3 ] Charles Wadelington and Ralph Kapp emphasize that she was a welcome speaker around the country,  she received six honorary degrees,  and was a friend of important people like  Eleanor Roosevelt.  And yet, when Mrs. Roosevelt declined Brown’s invitation to visit the school or other Palmer Institute events, the authors do not question her bland reason—”she feared her participation at such gatherings would offend other deserving institutions.”[4]

In contrast, Sandra Smith and  Earle West, in an earlier and somewhat  critical article in the Journal of Negro Education, highlighted Brown’s difficulties. They describe the “traumatic”  incident in 1920 when “twelve husky men” confronted her as she came out of a Pullman car, forcing her to sit in a car for blacks only. Adding to the humiliation, they write, was the fact that she was “forcibly marched” through three cars of white women who were going to Memphis to attend the same interracial conference she was. [5]

There is no doubt that Brown had  to compromise, especially early on.  As an example, Smith and West say that at a Palmer Institute concert in the South she felt obliged to reserve “the middle aisle”  for “our white friends.” And she had  to ask her white friends to speak to her with a “more appropriate” title. [6]

Smith and White remind us that it was difficult to be black in  the early 20th century—no matter how strong one was. But Charlotte Hawkins Brown persisted and won the appreciation of many. She was a rare woman indeed.

Photo of Charlotte Hawkins Brown is courtesy of the North Carolina Historic Sites. The Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum  is located on the site of the Palmer Memorial Institute and is open to the public. 


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