By Sharon Bingaman RN
Have you thought about what you want to do with your life and is that “something” that will advance your community? Many young people have minds full of all kinds of ideas about what to do in life. It can change daily depending on what we are exposed to and if we have not uncovered our purpose for being here. Thankfully, there have been those who have known early in life how they needed to make a contribution. One of those youngsters was Charlotte Hawkins Brown, an African American woman, who became a ground-breaking educator and founder of the Palmer Memorial Institute which grew from humble beginnings into a school for African American youth known for its academic excellence along with farming and domestic training.
By 1850 every county in North Carolina had a free public school: free that is, for whites only. After the Civil War, many public schools did not re-open because white folks feared that they would be forced to admit and educate all students equally and that would, of course, mean Black students too. White folks certainly did not want their sons and daughters to have to mingle with those they didn’t even consider to be full humans but they also could not take the chance of allowing Blacks to be educated and finding out how brilliant they are. So many private schools allowing only white students began to spring up.
Into this environment in 1883, Charlotte Hawkins, or “Lottie”, a granddaughter of an Enslaved, was born in Henderson, North Carolina. At an early age, Ms. Hawkins and her family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts for better prospects and a better chance at education for Ms. Hawkins. She was able to complete public elementary and high school in Cambridge. While there, the story goes, that quite by accident she came in contact with Ms. Alice Freeman Palmer who was the second president of Wellesley College. Mrs. Palmer was said to be very impressed with Ms. Hawkins intellect and determination, deciding to fund her education and supporting Ms. Hawkins’ goal to become a teacher. In 1901, while she was enrolled at the State Normal School, Ms. Hawkins received a call with a job offer to become a teacher at a small school for Black youth in Sedalia, North Carolina which was run by a missionary association. She went to Sedalia but later that year it became evident that the school was in too much disrepair and the missionary group decided to close it. Ms. Hawkins worked tirelessly with the community, raising funds to keep it open but the money just wasn’t there. However, she was committed to ensuring that African American children would get a good education so she went north again to her mentor, Mrs. Palmer and her wealthy friends who were generous in their donations.
Now, with enough money in hand to continue the school for another year, Charlotte Hawkins started her new school, in 1902 called the Freeman Palmer Institute which was named in part, for her mentor and benefactor. It began in an old log cabin with only two teachers and a few students. Times were very hard, but her vision of quality education for African American students came before anything else. She was tireless in her effort to raise funds and was able to get continued support from the African American community and donors from the north. There were set backs in the growth of the school as when fire hit the wooden buildings twice but Ms. Hawkins used those occasions to say that it was then time to start building with bricks. When the school started, it was much like Tuskegee Institute in that it had an agricultural and domestic training attitude. But as it grew over the years, it began to broaden its program with the addition of Art and Music and an emphasis on the academic and cultural. Charlotte Hawkins wanted her students to have the fullness of education that white folks had so that they would be able to compete on the world stage. To that end, she spoke tirelessly against Jim Crow laws which denied African Americans their human rights. On a more personal note, Ms. Hawkins married Edward Brown, a Harvard graduate, in 1911 but the marriage lasted only until 1915 and they had no children.
The Palmer Institute grew into a successful boarding school, by the 1920’s, attracting students from inside and outside the country. Over the years, the school grew to 350 acres and included a farm to grow food for the students and teachers. Mrs. Brown was able to complete her education, earning her degree from Wellesley. She toured colleges around the country making speeches about improving opportunities for African Americans and received many honorary degrees. She was also the first African American woman named to the national board of the YMCA (Young Women’s Christian Association). In 1941 she published a book, The Correct Thing to Do—To Say—To Wear, which put into print many of her basic ideas on education. Her ideas in a section of her book on “The Classroom” ring true today and can still be made part of your student life. Some of those ideas include-“Be sure you have all you need when you come to class, Don’t laugh at the mistakes of others, Don’t Cheat, Don’t Deface Property”- and these all remain timeless.
Charlotte Hawkins Brown remained at Palmer Institute for 50 years before retiring as president and died in 1961. Her physical legacy is her papers which are housed at Harvard University and the restored buildings of the Institute which are now the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum in North Carolina. The greater and intangible legacy was her dedication to hard work and sticking to the path of your goal with an emphasis on African American contributions to education in North Carolina. Her life’s work was spent to dispel the idea that Black people were inferior. She is quoted as saying, “I have had to accept segregation because my people who need what I have to give live in larger numbers in the land of segregated ideals. But my philosophy is that position or place can never segregate mind or soul. I sit in a Jim Crow car, but my mind keeps company with the Kings and Queens I have known”.