"Let me not forget again that I came not here for friendly sympathy or for anything else but to work, and to work hard. Let me do that faithfully and well."
Charlotte Forten Grimké was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on August 17, 1837. Her parents were active abolitionists, and members of the influential Forten-Purvis families of Philadelphia -- an extensive family of abolitionists who ran an anti-slavery network to provide assistance to escaped slaves.
Charlotte was privately educated until 1854, when her mother died, and she was sent to Salem, Massachusetts, to attend the school and live with prominent abolitionists there. While she was at the Salem school, she also began her most famous work, Journal, in which she wrote about her life, her passions, her influences, and, most importantly, chronicled the abolitionist movement around the Civil War. She wrote of racial discrimination against slaves and freed blacks and segregation. Though discrimination troubled Charlotte, she used it as fuel to better herself. She wanted to prove that the black community was just as capable of being productive members of society as whites. She taught herself several languages, including German, Latin, and French. She became well-read in the classics and contemporary literature.
"Monday, October 23, 1854: I will spare no effort to prepare myself well for the responsible duties of a teacher, and to live for the good I can do my oppressed and suffering fellow creatures."
(source: PBS Online)
It was at this same time in her life where she started to become more active in abolitionist causes, and joined the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society -- a bi-racial organization founded in 1834 to work to end slavery.
During the Civil War, Charlotte asked her friend, the famous poet John Greenleaf Whittier, to write her a recommendation so that she could teach for the Port Royal Experiment, a school set up to educate former slaves. As the Union took over parts of the South, many plantation owners fled their lands but left their slaves. Eight thousand slaves were in need of education. Both she and the Union command felt this was a chance to prove how powerful education could be to former slaves. Charlotte was the first black teacher to join the Army's mission, and taught at a small school on St. Helena Island. While there, she wrote “Life on the Sea Islands,” an essay on her experiences.
In May of 1864, she returned to Philadelphia, where she continued to teach and write poetry. In the late 1860s, she worked for the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., recruiting teachers, and in 1873 she became a clerk at the Treasury Department.
In 1878, she married Francis Grimké, a former slave, who attended school and eventually graduated from Princeton University, to become a Presbyterian minister. She continued her activism when they moved to Washington, D.C. where her husband took a position as pastor at the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. While helping him with his ministry, she also organized a women's missionary group, and continued her "racial uplift" efforts."May those whose holy task it is,To guide impulsive youth,
Fail not to cherish in their souls
A reverence for truth;
For teachings which the lips impart
Must have their source within the heart . . ."
Charlotte Forten Grimké's last literary effort was in response to an Evangelist editorial, "Relations of Blacks and Whites: Is There a Color Line in New England?" It asserted that blacks were not discriminated against in New England society. Forten Grimké stated that black Americans achieved success over extraordinary social odds, and they simply wanted fair and respectful treatment.
Charlotte Forten Grimké was a regular journal writer until she returned north after teaching in South Carolina. After her return, her entries were less frequent. While she did write about her daughter's death and her busy life with her husband, her writing was less frequent than the daily entries she made when younger. Her diary is one of the few extant documents detailing the life of a free black female in the antebellum North.