The work of eduactivist Charlotte Hawkins Brown personifies Black excellence in education. Born in North Carolina in 1883, Brown was educated in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she with her parents moved to escape the Jim Crow South. While in school, Brown was known as a brilliant student. After high school, she enrolled in the Salem Normal School to enter a career in teaching.
Encouraged by the Women’s Division of the American Missionary Association, Brown returned to North Carolina to educate Black children upon her graduation. When she arrived, she found a school with conditions unlike anything she experienced in Cambridge. The school was in such bad shape that the American Missionary Association closed the school down. However, she was not deterred.
Encouraged again by local Black people and after hearing about Lucy Craft Laney’s work in a lecture, Brown, at the age of 18, moved back to North Carolina and started her own school, the Palmer Memorial Institute, named for Brown’s mentor, Alice Freeman Palmer.
Brown utilized her charisma, plus contacts introduced to her by Palmer, to fundraise for her school. She opened a school distinct from many others. Her school included a junior and senior high school with a college preparatory curriculum.
Brown fused a focus on the classics with character development and service learning projects—students were counseled and trained by teachers. She introduced advanced math and science courses to students, and students at Palmer Memorial were the only students offered a distinct Black History course at that time.
Tragic fires were big setbacks for her school, but Brown tapped her contacts for support to help rebuild and strengthen the school. She got that support from folks such as Booker T. Washington, Harvard President Charles Eliot, and Boston philanthropists Carrie and Galen Stone. With that support, Brown was able to establish the first rural accredited high school in the county, for Black students or whites.
Brown also participated in activist efforts on behalf of Black people and Black education. She was a member of the Southern Commission for Interracial Cooperation, the Southern Regional Council, the Negro Business League, the American Red Cross, and she was on the executive board of the Southern Region of the Urban League.
Brown, along with Mary McLeod Bethune and Nannie Helen Burroughs, were known as the “Three Bs for Education,” who believed in combining a holistic triangle of ideas and lessons to achieve racial equality. With Lucy Craft Laney, the real life Fantastic Four was formed. Each one connected to the others through work and inspiration. You can learn more about these Fantastic Four through Audrey Thomas McCluskey’s well researched book, A Forgotten Sisterhood: Pioneering Black Women Educators and Activists in the Jim Crow South.
Brown provided a great example of fusing activism with education. She compromised neither of her ambitions. She used each of her desires to build upon each other because people were at the core of her passion. If we, as educators and activists, center our work and passions on people, we too can be effective for our students and their communities.
Charlotte Hawkins Brown, a member of the Black Educator Hall of Fame.
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