Charlotte Forten Grimké was an anti-slavery activist, a writer, poet and educator.
The only child of Mary Virginia Wood and Robert Bridges Forten, Charlotte was born August 17, 1837 in Philadelhpia. Her mother died in 1840 and her maternal grandmother in 1846. Throughout her childhood and particularly after the death of her grandmother, Charlotte was cared for by her paternal grandmother, Charlotte Vandine Forten and her three paternal aunts, particularly Margaretta Forten and Harriet Forten Purvis.
Charlotte moved to Salem, MA as a teenager to continue her education in the integrated public schools in Salem. There she lived with Amy Matilda Cassey and Charles Lenox Redmond, the couple at the head of a prominent Black family who were involved in the abolitionist movement as was her own family in Philadelphia.
In Salem, Charlotte joined the Salem female Anti-Slavery Society, finished her studies and started teaching, becoming the first African-American teacher in a Salem public school. Importantly, Charlotte also began writing in these years, working both on various poems and poetry collections as well as on a journal which she would continue from 1854-1892.
These passions continued to intersect in Charlotte’s life as she moved from Salem, back to Philadelphia and to the Sea Islands in South Carolina during the Civil War. Responding to a call to teach newly freed communities in Union-held territory, Charotte Forten Grimké worked on Saint Helena Island for just over a year. She documented this time in a series of essays called “Life on the Sea Islands,” published in Atlantic Monthly in May and June 1864.
Charlotte married Presbyterian minister, Francis J. Grimké in 1878 and continued her work in the networks of his church in Washington, D.C.
Charlotte Forten Grimké composed five journals over her lifetime of writing. These writings were published first, in excerpted form, in 1953, and then in complete form in 1988 in a collaborative effort of The Schomburg Library and historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Charlotte Forten Grimké’s Washington D.C. house, where she lived from 1881-86, was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Though Philadelphia was a city of formative and recurring importance for Charlotte Forten Grimké, there is no formal commemoration in Philadelphia of her contributions to the city or the nation. Further, while there is a marker celebrating the life of James Forten, the city has not formally recognized the formidable and invaluable contributions of his wife, Charlotte, his daughters, Harriet Forten Purvis, Sarah Louise Forten, Margaretta Forten, or those of his granddaughter, Charlotte Forten Grimké.