The Early Life of Miss Charlotte Hawkins

Alice Freeman Palmer

Alice Freeman Palmer

Among the first women to graduate from the University of Michigan, Miss Alice Freeman served as president of Wellesley College for the years 1881-1887. A chance meeting with a young Charlotte Hawkins in Mas- sachusetts produced a mentor for a young teacher, and a namesake for her pioneering school for African American students in Sedalia, North Carolina. Wellesley College Archives

A Migrant to the North

It was Emerson who said: "If a man preaches a better sermon, makes a better speech, or builds a better mouse trap than his neighbor though he lives in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door." Well might this have been said of Charlotte Hawkins Brown, founder and principal of the Palmer Memorial Institute, at Sedalia, North Carolina, a quiet rural village consisting of fifty or more families, mostly colored people, ten miles east of Greensboro.

Although Charlotte Hawkins was reared and educated in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she was born in Henderson, North Carolina, June 11, 188[3]. Her mother, Caroline Frances, was the twelfth child of Mingo and Rebecca Hawkins; and her father, from whom she was separated at birth, belonged to a family that lived on the adjoining plantation.* About the time that Charlotte was born, colored people were leaving for Northern points in large numbers, and Boston had become the mecca for many of the progressive Negroes in the eastern section of North Carolina. Her earliest recollection is that of traveling towards the railroad station with her mother and hearing stories of the big sea animals that would swallow them up if they were not careful on the boat trip from Norfolk to Boston. They reached Boston safely, however, and the little girl soon began doing things worthwhile.

When Charlotte was about three years of age, her mother stood her on the settee in the church in order for her to say her first speech, "Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven." She remembers further appearances as a child on various programs--how she would stand up and catch the pennies and nickels which people in the audience would throw her.

Of her childhood, she writes: "My early years were uneventful except for these public appearances; but by the time that I was twelve years old my desire for leadership had asserted itself, and in the city of Cambridge I had organized a little kindergarten department in the Sunday School of the Union Baptist Church. Before I was fourteen years of age, I had been chosen orator on a very important occasion when the minister of the church was celebrating his fifteenth anniversary as pastor, and in the presence of the governor of the State and his council I had dared to eulogize this pastor and receive the plaudits of the great throng."

Charlotte returned with her mother to Henderson almost annually, as her mother, like the majority of Southern migrants in that day, thought that Christmas was not Christmas unless it was spent around the hearth of the old Southern home. These frequent visits caused Charlotte to carry with her vivid pictures of the cottage in which she was born. The feature of this cottage that made a lasting impression was the four large, equally distant columns of the front porch. Anyone who visits Palmer Memorial Institute sees a tangible result of this childhood memory.

Charlotte's mother was thrifty, spiritually keen, and a lover of the beautiful. She and her husband, Charlotte's stepfather, provided a comfortable home for the two children, Charlotte and Mingo. It consisted of an attractive parlor, a well-lighted dining room, and cozy bedrooms. The daughter had a little bedroom off from her mother's. She herself says that the bed looked too pretty at night to be disturbed and that she can see the mirror now, set back between parted blue and white ruffles, stiffly starched and immaculate.

The children had the advantage of attending the public school in Cambridge, and Charlotte profited especially by this training. Her first graduation was a momentous occasion for the family as she was the chosen speaker from the famous Allston Grammar School in Cambridge. Charlotte next attended the Cambridge English High School, of which Mr. Ray Green Huling was principal. He evinced much interest in her welfare since she possessed an insatiable thirst for art.

"I remember one day seeing the eighteen hundred or more students hurrying to the chapel," says she, "and I went along with a large number mostly of the other group, and how abashed I was when I saw that a crayon portrait of one of my classmates that I had made and brought to her as a gift was being exhibited to the entire student body. This was one of the means that I had for earning extra money--doing crayon portraits for many of my friends. There hang now on the walls in Cambridge some of the work that I did in those early days."

In April 1900, the spring that Charlotte was planning to be graduated from high school, she hastened home one day to tell her mother that the girls had decided to wear silk slips under their organdy dresses for graduation. Mrs. Brown says that she can picture today the stern look of her mother as she turned from the ironing board and said: "You can have the organdy, but mother will not buy silk for you. You can only have silk when you work and earn the money."

A Self-Supporting Student

Taking her mother at her word, the prospective graduate asked one of her teachers if she knew where she could secure employment. In a few days this teacher called Charlotte to her desk and said: "Lottie, I have a friend who would like to have a fine girl come and amuse her baby in the afternoon. You can sing and play, and I think it will be just the thing for you."

Charlotte was delighted to think of earning three dollars and a half a week for working only two hours daily. Without further inquiry or effort to seek mother's permission she readily hired herself and hurried home to inform her mother that she need not expect her home immediately from school in the future. Although this announcement startled her mother she did not interfere as she thought that this was only a girlish whim.

One day while Charlotte was rolling the baby carriage with one hand and reading Virgil, which she held in the other, there passed briskly a woman dressed in black, who turned and smiled, turned again, and finally retraced her steps. After tickling the baby underneath its plump little chin, she said, judging doubtless from the fact that Virgil was a textbook used in the senior classes:

"Are you a senior?"
Charlotte answered, "Yes, I am."
"In which one of the schools?" she asked.
"The English High School," was Charlotte's reply.

A few days after this, the high school principal, Mr. Huling, called Charlotte to his office and said, "Mrs. Alice Freeman Palmer inquired about you, Lottie, and wanted to know who was the little brown-skinned girl wheeling a baby carriage in the vicinity of the school, and I told her that must be you as Miss Deering had already told me that you were working in the afternoons."

Alice Freeman Palmer

Alice Freeman Palmer, Wellesley College Archives

This meeting with an exceptional woman was a happy coincidence. Upon graduation from high school, it was Charlotte's ambition to enter Radcliffe College. Her mother, on the other hand, did not see why her daughter should spend four more years in school. However, Charlotte finally secured her mother's consent to attend a normal school. As the young graduate began flooding the mails with requests for catalogues, she discovered something which stimulated her interest.

"Imagine my surprise," said she, "when I opened one from the State Normal School at Salem, to see the name, Alice Freeman Palmer, on the front page as a member of the board of education of the state of Massachusetts, governing its state normal schools. I immediately decided that I would write and tell her that I was the little brown-skinned girl whom she had seen wheeling the baby carriage and reading Virgil. Within a few days came an answer to my letter, and without investigating concerning my financial position, Mrs. Palmer voluntarily became responsible for whatever expense I might have in the State Normal School of my choice."

From: Daniel, Sadie Iola. Women Builders. Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, Inc., 1931.

*NOTE: The Daniel book provides a contemporary example of information written on Dr. Brown and PMI when both were rising to prominence in America. Certain facts reported here have since proven inaccurate.


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