Charlotte Hawkins Brown
June 11, 1883 – January 11, 1961
Notable: Author & Educator
The granddaughter of former slaves, Lottie Hawkins was born to Caroline Frances Hawkins and Edmund H. Hight in Henderson, North Carolina. When Hawkins was five Caroline remarried and moved her and her brother along with their extended family to Cambridge, Massachusetts. The family was fleeing the oppressive limitations of the Jim Crow South in hopes of finding freedom and greater possibilities in the North.
Once settled in Cambridge, Hawkins’ parents established a boarding house and laundry to service students at Harvard University. As a child, Hawkins attended the Allston Grammar School, a local public school where she stood out as a diligent student and gifted musician. At home, she helped her mother perform chores around the boarding house which brought her into contact with students from Harvard. Hearing them speak about their experiences and studies sparked a desire within Hawkins to one day attend college.
Later while studying at the Cambridge English High School Hawkins earned money through babysitting jobs. One day while on a walk with a family’s baby, Alice Freeman Palmer, the second president of Wellesley College noticed her pushing the carriage while carrying a copy of Virgil. Palmer inquired about the girl she had seen with the book and baby carriage. Impressed with what she learned, Palmer offered to cover Hawkins’ tuition and expenses while she attended the State Normal School at Salem.
Hawkins enrolled at the State Normal School and around this time changed her name to Charlotte Eugenia. During her first year of school, she was offered the opportunity to return to the state of her birth for a teaching position with the American Missionary Association. The poorly maintained school at the Bethany Congregational Church was located in rural Sedalia, Guilford County. It quickly closed due to a lack of funding but by this point, Hawkins had dedicated herself to teaching in the area as there were few other options for the local Black children.
She returned to Cambridge where she completed her teaching certificate while raising funds to establish a new school. That same year Hawkins secured enough donations for the purchase of land, a building, and funds to operate. Hawkins returned to Sedalia, North Carolina, and established the Alice Freeman Palmer Institute in a former blacksmith’s shop.
The Palmer Institute operated as both a day and boarding school which provided a primary through junior college education for Black students. Originally modeled after the vocational programs at some HBCUs, the school’s curriculum eventually expanded to include liberal arts studies. Financial support from Booker T. Washington, other educators, and Northern philanthropists helped the school secure more acreage to which it added more buildings and facilities.
In 1909 or 1911 (sources vary), Palmer married Edward S. Brown who was also a teacher at the school and although the marriage ended rather quickly she used the name “Charlotte Hawkins Brown” from that point forward. The couple didn’t have any children of their own but raised six children of their family members. One of these children was Brown’s niece, Maria, who would later marry Nat King Cole.
The school continued to grow and flourish under Brown’s leadership and developed a strong reputation for preparing its graduates for higher learning. Brown herself continued on a path of personal development and growth through travel and taking courses at various colleges. She also played a role in the establishment and management of other schools in the state.
Brown retired from leading the school after 50 years but continued as its financial director and a member of the board. Charlotte Hawkins Brown died of heart failure on January 11, 1961, at the age of 77. In addition to being an educator, Brown had also established herself as an author and essayist. After her death, the Palmer Institute became a historical state landmark, the first in North Carolina to be associated with a Black person. The Palmer Institute continued to operate for a decade but closed in 1971 due to financial issues.
- NC Historic Sites. Accessed March 25, 2022. https://historicsites.nc.gov/all-sites/charlotte-hawkins-brown-museum/history/dr-charlotte-hawkins-brown.
- “Brown, Charlotte Hawkins.” 2022. Encyclopedia.com. ELITE CAFEMEDIA. March 25, 2022. https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/brown-charlotte-hawkins.
- Burns, A. M. n.d. “Brown, Charlotte Hawkins.” NCpedia. State Library of North Carolina. Accessed March 25, 2022. https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/brown-charlotte-hawkins0.
- “Charlotte Hawkins Brown.” n.d. NCpedia. State Library of North Carolina. Accessed March 25, 2022. https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/brown-charlotte-hawkins.
- Espiritu, Allison. 2007. “Charlotte Eugenia Hawkins Brown (1883-1961).” Blackpast.org. March 6, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/brown-charlotte-eugenia-hawkins-1883-1961/.
- “Papers of Charlotte Hawkins Brown, 1900-1961.” n.d. HOLLIS for Archival Discovery. Accessed March 25, 2022. https://hollisarchives.lib.harvard.edu/repositories/8/resources/4965.
- Mary McLeod Bethune
- Septima Poinsette Clark
- Tuskegee Black History Sites
- Janie Porter Barrett
- Lugenia Burns Hope
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