The Birth and Growth of Palmer Memorial Institute

Charlotte Hawkins Brown

Charlotte Hawkins Brown. Miss Hawkins brought a little bit of New England to North Carolina. From Women Builders

Charlotte Hawkins Returns to the South

Naturally Charlotte Hawkins chose [the State Normal School at] Salem as it was sufficiently near for her to commute. She was a member of the class of 1902, but was permitted to leave school prior to graduation to accept a position that was offered her with the American Missionary Association. "There are," says she, "many instances in my life which lead me to believe fully that for this purpose came I into the world, for it was on a train between Boston and Salem one day that I was addressed by the Field Secretary of the Women's Division of the American Missionary Association, who, having discovered that I was a student at the Salem Normal School, because of the friends with whom I boarded the train, addressed me in such a manner as to solicit my interest in the great missionary endeavor of that organization devoted to the education of the people of my race who found their homes on Southern soil."

Charlotte Hawkins left Cambridge October 10, 1901, for North Carolina, headed for what she thought was a well established mission school. Upon arriving in Greensboro she took her letter of directions and began to inquire about McLeansville, North Carolina. The station porter told her that McLeansville was just a little stop about eight miles from Greensboro and advised her which train to board, for trains only stopped there when signaled. Her first impression of the place was a sign post marked McLeansville with high towering pines on one side and sturdy oaks on the other and one small unpainted ramshackled house which she later found to be the post office and country store combined. She went into the store and commenced to inquire where the mission station, Bethany Institute, as it was called, was located. After much questioning, walking, and riding on a wagon behind a mule, she arrived at her destination, which was four and one-half miles from McLeansville.

"In a little white church, which was schoolroom and church combined," says she, "my life's work began. The plastering was broken, and half of the windowpanes were out. With these crudities and its homemade log seats it seemed to me a forlorn, forsaken place; and yet those fifty or sixty boys and girls, barefooted and unkempt, heartened me with their bright questioning eyes, and in a little while I forgot the isolation and hardships and lost my very soul in trying to help them."

Miss Hawkins's home for the first year was a small room in the parsonage. Without window shades or curtains, she had to move her bed from corner to corner in order to escape the rays of the sun and to keep from getting wet when it rained, as the roof was in need of repair.

During that year, nevertheless, the new teacher made for herself a place in the community by assisting in the church and Sunday School and by organizing groups of kitchen and mothers' clubs. As a convict camp was pitched very near the church school, Miss Hawkins went back and forth with the pastor to this camp to help the convicts who were building the public highway, and they expressed their gratitude by singing spirituals. She visited the farm people, sometimes wading through creeks to see the children and their parents on the other side, and sleeping in log cabins where the sun peeped through the crevices in the wall to awaken her in the morning. This New Englander could not possibly understand the poverty-stricken conditions that she was facing. The small salary of thirty dollars a month which the American Missionary Association paid Miss Hawkins was almost consumed in helping to buy clothing and supplies for the school children.

The youthful teacher's chief recreation was letter-writing. She delighted in telling friends about these experiences, and she longed to know what was going on in more advanced places. At first mail had to come from the station at McLeansville or be brought from another rural post office station about three miles distant. Consequently Miss Hawkins was quite happy when the post office at Sedalia was established.

Answering the Call of the Needy

A turning point in her career was reached in the early spring of 1902. The American Missionary Association, after sending an inspector down to survey the entire field, decided that it would close its one and two teacher schools where there seemed to be no prospect of advancement. In doing this at Sedalia, it made an offer of new work to Charlotte Hawkins. She was about ready to accept a position elsewhere when a dozen or more patrons assured her that she had been helpful to the community and that they did not want her to leave them and their children. These citizens also said that they had no salary to offer when the school was closed by the American Missionary Association, but they could board her from house to house if she would only return.

To undertake such a task, however, the material and moral support of friends was necessary. Miss Hawkins, therefore, had a conference with Mrs. Palmer in June 1902, which strengthened her desire to return to Sedalia. Mrs. Palmer was in the midst of a committee meeting when Charlotte Hawkins called. She took leave of her committee, however, to greet the young teacher for a few moments in her library and bade her good-bye, saying, "I believe you can do it and when I return from Europe in the early fall, I will have some of my friends hear your plans and we will help you." Mrs. Palmer, however, never returned.

Charlotte Hawkins was now confronted with difficult financial problems. This enthusiastic teacher had decided to conduct a school that had no assured means of maintenance. She worked all summer, giving concerts in order to raise money to meet the most pressing needs. During this time this untiring worker covered forty or fifty miles, walking around Cape Ann, Massachusetts, to secure aid for her school. The task was arduous, but she met with a degree of success. At the end of the summer she sent one hundred dollars to the Congregational pastor who had remained with the work, and she returned to Sedalia with two hundred and fifty dollars, which she used to recondition an old log structure to house two teachers and a few boarding girls.

This old structure served diverse needs. The girls slept in the overhead lofts while the lower floor was used for the kitchen, the dining room, and the teachers' bedroom. There was also a large open room which was used as a schoolroom, living room, and bedroom. Teachers and pupils alike ate two meals daily, consisting mainly of corn bread, molasses, peas, and beans. Meat was seldom served.

As people heard more and more about the young teacher from the North, the school attendance increased so rapidly that Miss Lelia Ireland, a graduate of Scotia Seminary, joined Miss Hawkins to share the sacrifices in trying to carry on the work independently of the church. The Congregational minister relinquished his interest after the second year. Consequently, Miss Hawkins was forced to reorganize the work, ask for a board of trustees, and begin to build a school. She named the institution in honor of Mrs. Alice Freeman Palmer, who had died just as she was planning to bring the work before the people of Boston.

The Test in the Struggle

During the spring of 1904, the two teachers raised five hundred dollars for the erection of the first building. Most of this was secured by appeals through the laborious task of writing one thousand letters by hand. "Many a night," says this pioneer, "Miss Ireland and I would write twenty-five or thirty letters by hand to New Englanders whose names I had learned, and this was our procedure. We would write the letters, then take them into our little room and place them on the table and kneel to ask God's blessing upon them that they might find their way into the hearts of the people to whom they were addressed. Through our letters we raised a substantial sum towards our new building which we called Memorial Hall."

PMI's first school building

PMI's first school building. © North Carolina Office of Archives & History

The foundation of Memorial Hall was laid May 1904, but this building of [a] wooden structure of the average public schoolhouse size was not competed until the summer of 1905. The work was at first delayed. After much meditation Miss Hawkins decided to sign a contract for eight hundred dollars with which to complete Memorial Hall. She did this absolutely on faith as there was no source of revenue. Unfortunately, too, she became ill within a week after arriving in Cambridge for the summer and was compelled to spend nearly nine weeks in the hospital.

Upon leaving the hospital in August, Miss Hawkins busied herself in raising funds for the school. Her physician had advised her to spend the winter at home, but she was determined to meet the building contractor on the appointed day. Hence, she left Boston September 23, 1905, not only with less than two hundred dollars of the money needed to pay for the building, but also without funds for furnishings and teachers' salaries.

While waiting for the change of train at Grand Central Station, she chanced to see from a newspaper that Mr. and Mrs. Charles Guthrie of New York were in the United States. The Guthries were among the people who went near Sedalia to hunt, and they had manifested interest in the school. Miss Hawkins attempted to reach Mrs. Guthrie by telephone but was unsuccessful.

"With tears coursing down my cheeks," says she, "I sat on one of the long seats in Grand Central Station and prayed as I had never prayed before, feeling that somewhere among the friends in New York the money might be found. The thought came to send Mr. Guthrie a telegram asking him to see me. Immediately the reply came welcoming me to the St. Regis Hotel where I met and talked with him for half an hour or more.

"He talked about everything except money. He had done a good deal of shooting in the area surrounding our school and he began to express his surprise that more was not being done by the county for the Negroes in that section. All the time my heart was saying, 'Please ask me something about the school!' To my consternation and dismay he called to the valet for his scarf and hat saying, 'We will go!' I noticed before he put his gloves on in the lobby of the hotel that he had given a paper to a messenger, but it did not once occur to me that it was anything for me. Finally he looked down upon me, for he was exceptionally tall, and said: 'I think you are doing a very much needed piece of work and I would like to see it grow. How much did you say you needed to get into your building?'

"I replied, 'The contract calls for $800, but I have $140; and even though we may not be able to furnish it, we are going to live in there this year with the furniture that we have if we can only get the building paid for.'

"The messenger soon returned and gave an envelope to Mr. Guthrie from which he took bright, new, crisp-looking bills. I thought I was dreaming, for he handed me one five hundred dollar bill and three one hundred dollar bills and said: 'I hope you can pay for your building now. I wish you the very best of luck.'

"I could scarcely say 'Thank you,' for I was shaking in my shoes. God had answered our prayer, and I was hurrying to the Western Union Station to telegraph my dear mother who had joined me in prayer to the extent that she was willing to mortgage our home for the sum if it could not be found otherwise. The telegram, as I remember it, said: 'Thank God for answered prayer. $800 gift from Mr. Guthrie.'

"Not only did we put up that building, but everything on my list was provided for us before the first of the year. It was the most remarkable answer to prayer I had experienced up to that time."

Some help came, too, from another source. Mrs. Osborn W. Bright, of New York, a woman whom Miss Hawkins met on her way to Sedalia and whom she designates as the grandmother of Palmer Memorial Institute, interested some of the New York people who had a hunting lodge nearby; and they helped to furnish Memorial Hall, making it complete in every detail.

The school grew rapidly after the erection of Memorial Hall. More and more substantial friends were gained. Mr. Edward P. Wharton, President of the Greensboro National Bank, was the first Southern white man to make a donation, and Mr. Caesar Cone the first to give as much as fifty dollars. In 1906, Miss Helen Kimball of Brookline, Massachusetts, bought a three thousand dollar farm for the school, a third of which was a direct gift; the remaining portion was offered for sale to patrons of the institution for building sites. The following year nine families commenced to buy ground for homes from this newly purchased land. About this time, too, Miss Hawkins married, thus adding another family to this prosperous and enterprising community.[Miss Hawkins married Edward Sumner Brown, an alumni of Harvard University. Mr. Brown taught at Palmer after their marriage, which fell apart within five years due to irreconcilable differences. Mr. Brown left to teach at a similar institution in South Carolina].

In 1908, Miss Mary R. Grinnell gave Palmer its second building, the Domestic Science Cottage, where homemaking was taught. By 1910, the property valuation amounted to ten thousand dollars. About this time two one thousand dollar gifts were received from Brookline friends, one from Miss Helen Kimball to start an endowment fund, and the other from Mr. John F. Twombly to build and equip a mechanical shop. The industrial department grew so steadily between 1905 and 1910 that two new industrial teachers were employed, representing Tuskegee Institute and the Agricultural and Technical College, Greensboro, North Carolina. The endowment fund was promptly increased by a five hundred dollar donation from Mr. Osborn W. Bright and a five thousand dollar subscription from Mr. Edward S. Harkness, of New York City. In order to make the school more self-supporting a valuable tract of farm land of two hundred and fifty acres was purchased by giving a mortgage on the land itself, thereby not jeopardizing other school property.

PMI Class Photo, 1907

PMI Class Photo, 1907. Dr. Brown sits in the middle, third from the left on the second row. Vina Wadelington Webb sits second from the left in the first row (lighter colored skirt).

The Help of Mr. Galen Stone

In 1914, Palmer Memorial Institute entered upon a new era. In the spring of the year Miss Helen Kimball organized the Sedalia Club in Brookline, Massachusetts; and in the fall the club held its first annual fair through the efficient management of Mrs. G. W. Nowell. Furthermore, Mrs. Charles M. Connfelt, a New Yorker and lifelong friend of Mrs. Bright, introduced Mrs. Brown to Mr. Galen Stone, who was a trustee of Wellesley College and a great admirer of Alice Freeman Palmer. Mr. Stone, a retired Wall Street broker, w as formerly a member of the Hayden-Stone Company of New York.

"On a morning in early spring I approached the office at 87 Milk Street, Boston," says Mrs. Brown, "and asked to see Mr. Galen Stone, with whom I had conversed over the telephone. I approached him by saying: 'Mr. Stone, I thought you would be interested to hear more of the school.' He replied by saying, 'I don't know that I will be interested at all, Mrs. Brown. I have quite as many things in Boston as I can carry.' But I stayed, nevertheless, and kept talking.

"I saw on the wall near the desk a copy of that picture, 'The Light of the World.' I commented on it and finally turned again to the subject of my quest. I saw that he was getting interested. He began to pace his office floor and said: 'How much money did you say you had to raise?' I answered, 'I am here to raise $l,100, Mr. Stone.' And I, wanting to be modest said, 'one hundred dollars.'

"He really looked at me in pity for he realized that my need was greater than I had expressed. Then he rejoiced my heart by saying: 'If you will go out of here and raise $850, come back to me and I will give you $250.' I went out of that office with the determination to go back with the $850, but I failed and did not go back. However, I returned to Sedalia, told my group of teachers what had happened and put up this proposition to them. 'I believe that if I could write Mr. Stone and tell him that we would raise $250 of the money ourselves, he would give us $250.'

"They readily consented and each one pledged one month's salary. I wrote Mr. Stone, who was an absolute stranger to me other than that conference, and told him how I had failed, gave him the new proposition, and dared to ask him to wire me if he was willing to meet it. Imagine my joy and surprise when in two or three days I was called to the telephone across the street to receive a message from Western Union which said, 'Willing to give money on conditions stated in letter.' Thus was ushered in the Galen Stone Period of Palmer Memorial Institute, which meant a modernly equipped institution with well trained teachers."

Growing in power to serve, the institution began to make itself felt in the South; and the people, especially those of North Carolina, hailed Charlotte Hawkins Brown as a benefactor. In 1916, the school celebrated the fifteenth anniversary of the coming of this woman to Sedalia. Among the visitors were Dr. James H. Dillard, of the Jeanes Fund, and Mr. N. C. Newbold, director of the division of Negro education of the State Department of Education of North Carolina. The most interesting of all of the spectators on this occasion, however, were the grateful people of that community whom she had so unselfishly served.

In the meantime some interesting developments were taking place. The Rosenwald five-year guaranty fund of $15,000 was completed in 1916. The following year Mr. Wharton, a Greensboro banker, accepted the chairmanship of the board of trustees. Mrs. Brown, therefore, commenced to feel that the severe year of 1917 was closing with the school in a prosperous condition.

Disaster, however, is frequently just around the corner. On the night of December 29, a great light burst forth out of one of the windows of the Industrial Building, and in a few minutes the flames consumed the structure and all of its equipment. This misfortune, however, brought the institution new friends. The local trustees, Southern white men, wanted to know what Mrs. Brown's plans were for repairing the losses sufficiently to go on with the work.

"I am going back to Boston, to see if I can raise money to continue the school for the year," said she to one of them, but great was her joy when Mr. Edward Wharton, chairman of the board, said: "You will not have to go to Boston to secure funds to continue this institution. The people of Greensboro will advance it for the rest of the year."

Two days later at a special meeting of the directors of the Greensboro chamber of commerce it was decided to conduct a campaign for funds with which to assist the institution. On the following Sunday, Mrs. Brown at the Municipal Theater in Greensboro told the gripping narrative of the school's struggles, the Sedalia boys and girls sang, and within a few minutes the people of the city pledged more than $1,000 for Palmer Memorial Institute. A few days prior to the concert the Greensboro Daily News published an editorial referring in laudatory vein to the excellent work being done at the Institute.

The Better Day

Interest elsewhere increased also. In January Mr. and Mrs. Galen Stone of Boston, who happened to be at Pinehurst, North Carolina, motored to Sedalia to visit Mrs. Brown's school. They were impressed with the spirit manifested by the teachers and students and saw the need for funds to develop the work. This was the beginning of a better day for Palmer Memorial Institute. Before many months passed, Mr. Stone made a conditional offer of $10,000 toward a new building. Greensboro citizens agreed to give dollar for dollar with Mr. Stone. Miss Louise W. Brooks, president of the Sedalia Club and a member of the board of trustees raised the initial $5,000 for the building. It is interesting to note that 225,000 of the bricks used in its construction were made from soil owned by the Institute, by student labor, while about 75,000 feet of framing and rough lumber were cut from Palmer Memorial's woods.

Yet it was not an easy task to put up this structure. In June 1920, when the building was in the process of erection, Mrs. Brown had spent the last penny available. Work on the building had stopped, and she did not know where to turn. She owed the contractor and the workers more than $5,000. "Under the inspiration of God himself," said she, "I wrote Mrs. Stone concerning my plight. She had been accustomed for a number of years to make a special birthday gift to me. I had forgotten that at the time and was agreeably surprised when, on June 11, I opened my mail and found in it a check for $10,000 with these words: 'I cannot let you become discouraged. I must help you keep your faith in God. Five hundred dollars of this money you must spend for vacation, and the rest you will deposit to the building account.'"

The building when completed cost about $150,000. This three-story fireproof structure contains offices and classrooms with modern equipment for the various departments of the school. On the lower floor are the science and home economics laboratories, the practice dining room and domestic art room--all bright and well lighted. The art collection, the first of any Negro school in the South, is located here as well as the school library and auditorium. The auditorium contains two hundred and thirty seats, which cost three dollars apiece. Individuals paid for these seats and named them, thereby giving inspiration to each student who occupies one. As a result of these struggles, the Alice Freeman Palmer Building, the most modern Negro school building in North Carolina at that time, was dedicated on April 9, 1922.

Alice Freeman Palmer Building at PMI

Alice Freeman Palmer Building, campus of PMI. From Women Builders

Just as the school was rejoicing over this building, the largest dormitory containing the dining room, kitchen, and laundry was destroyed by fire April 20, 1922. Sixty girls were deprived of dormitory space, and the belongings of many of them were destroyed by fire. But for the immediate assistance rendered by friends the school could not have held the girls together. The Domestic Science department fed students and teachers in relays for three weeks, and the girls slept five and six crosswise on cots saved from the fire until they could be better provided for.

Looking to the Future

In 1924, when it seemed as though it was going to be an impossibility for independent schools to exist, Mrs. Brown persuaded Palmer's board of trustees to apply to the American Missionary Association, the organization that had sent her into the South over twenty years before, for affiliation with its board to guarantee the continuance of the institution. Upon investigation the Association found the buildings in good shape, the land fertile, and general surroundings cultural. It, therefore, made the following offer:

"If you will raise $150,000 for buildings and $150,000 payable at the rate of $30,000 a year for five years for current expenses, at the end of that period we will take over the school and share, increasing each year, the responsibility."

Palmer's trustees and friends thought this a polite way of turning the school down. The principal informed a number of good friends of the offer and met discouragement on every hand. Mr. Galen Stone was the only person who was willing to pledge $10,000 toward the total amount. Mrs. Brown wired Mr. Stone to see if she could confer with him in New York concerning the proposition. The Duke interests had just given forty million for the education of the white people in North Carolina, and Mrs. Brown clipped the news article from the paper to take with her to New York.

Upon arriving at the Biltmore Hotel she was greatly humiliated by the management that tried to make her use the freight elevator. "I knew that our great benefactor did not like complaints; so when he greeted me at the door, though my heart was heavy and I was full of resentment and anger," says Mrs. Brown, "I smiled. We talked about plans until finally he said: 'Mrs. Stone will raise our contribution $15,000.'

"I thanked him and then placed the paragraph concerning the Duke millions on the table before him, saying, 'This is being done to make white young men and white young women in North Carolina more fit to live.' Then I related to him just what happened on the elevator and ended by saying, 'Until somebody can express confidence enough in a Negro woman to give her the chance to do something big for her people, she will always be looked upon as a maid or as a servant.'

"Sensing the situation, he immediately got his hat and coat, went down with me, stayed there in the lobby and talked about five minutes, evidently to inform the people that I was his guest caller. He then ordered a taxi, giving me his and Mrs. Stone's best wishes for the New Year, which was to dawn the next day, and bade me good-bye.

"I left, taking the next train for North Carolina. On January 2, the secretary had a call to the telephone, which was then across the street. He returned stammering excitedly, 'Mrs. Brown, there is a telegram over there that says something about $75,000 from Mr. Stone!'

"I could not believe it and was not satisfied to receive such a telegram over the telephone. I rode to the Postal Telegraph office and the following telegram greeted me:

After careful consideration of your problems Mrs. Stone and I are willing to subscribe seventy-five thousand dollars toward the one hundred fifty thousand dollars fund subject to the following conditions namely that payment shall be extended over three years STOP that subscription shall not be binding until the whole one hundred fifty thousand is subscribed STOP that subscription for full amount must be in by July first 1925—Believe that with this subscription you can execute the thing with a rush.

GALEN L. STONE.

"Needless to say that within a year we raised that fund which was for buildings, and Mr. Stone was so pleased that he subscribed almost one-half of that needed for the current expenses of the school, paid all of its debts, and like a great soldier went home to his reward long before he realized what a big thing he had done in rebuilding the Palmer Memorial Institute.

"In the year 1925," says Mrs. Brown, "I raised $310,000 to re-establish and rebuild Palmer after disastrous fires. This was in fulfillment of the condition stipulated by the American Missionary Association of New York City, with which we are now affiliated."

A Little of New England in North Carolina

The following year the school celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. One feature of these exercises was the dedication of two buildings, at which time Dr. Frederick Brownlee, executive secretary of the American Missionary Association, presided. One of these buildings, Galen Stone Hall, is a well furnished modern dormitory for girls. The other structure, Kimball Hall, which stands on the site of the first building erected by the institution, is the dining hall. It is a memorial to the Kimball family, whose generous interest practically supported the school during the struggling days of its infancy.

Galen Stone Hall - 1927

Galen Stone Hall, 1927. Given by Dr. Harold Webb whose mother, Vina Wadelington Webb, graduated from Palmer in 1907. Vina was a dear friend of Dr. Brown.

Today the institute is a model community, consisting of fourteen modern buildings and three hundred and fifty acres, valued at from fifty to one hundred dollars an acre. All the buildings are steam heated and lighted by electricity; all are brick except two. The school maintains its own water and sewerage system.

The institution bears no ear-marks of the usual rural school. It is delightfully situated upon a wide rolling plain with a sloping background of fertile, well-cultivated farm land. The plan is well laid out and the school's property is valued at over one million dollars. The campus proper with its green velvety lawns, well shaped trees, and bright flowers and shrubbery, presents a pleasing picture.

Art Class at PMI

Students in art class at Palmer Memorial Institute. "When standing or sitting, hold yourself erect. Don't slouch. Talk clearly and sufficiently loud for everyone in the room to hear." — C. H. Brown. Image from Women Builders

The cultural or finer values of education are stressed with proper emphasis upon industrial training. To this end every possible effort has been made to surround the students with beauty and culture. An art collection, numbering over two thousand copies of masterpieces, superior to that of any Negro school in the South, is exhibited, and all students must elect either art or dramatics during the high school course, for which subjects there are no extra fees. "The Little Theater" movement, a definite part of the institution's plan, is sponsored by the "Sedalia Players." The senior high school class takes a ten-day trip to Washington, New York, or Boston to observe art museums and historical sites. It also has the opportunity to attend excellent musicales.

The graduates of this institution reflect credit upon their Alma Mater. At least fifteen Palmer graduates are principals of high, elementary, or county training schools in North and South Carolina. Four are county demonstrators in agricultural projects; five are builders and contractors; and some are successful ministers, dentists, and physicians. Several of the young women graduates have achieved distinction as Jeanes Fund workers. One of the girls became a leading soloist in "Blackbirds," and another is a member of the chorus in "The Green Pastures." Ivory Owens, another graduate, has been the successful secretary-treasurer of the Norfolk branch of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company for more than ten years. Still another, Dr. S. E. Moore, is a prominent leader in the civic and welfare work of St. Louis; and Dr. Vance W. Love, also an alumnus of the institution, secured the means for his education by raising tobacco; and though still a tobacco farmer, is also an affluent physician.

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


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