Charlotte Forten, A Diarist Who Made A Difference Too

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JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Feb 14, 2012
Central Pennsylvania
Bumped, as another teacher, admirer of the people whom she taught.

Thank you, James N., for the head's up on Charlotte Forten, and see where you'd have a good grasp on her place in History. Her friendship with Robert Gould Shaw kept her from being just one, more astonishing diarist, to the great good fortune of anyone who subsequently was able to bump into her work. Like so many diarists she draws with her pen what she understands she may someday wish to remember and bring to mind- she preserved it well. The islands she grew to love along with the people she came to understand and also love become photographs in your head too, reading while she writes.

Not to add a spoiler, but there's a part in here I'd love to know more about. After Gould's death she writes that one of his friends told her, one of Gould's last thoughts before he died was of her, and that he wished to leave her one of his horses. She is extremely touched- does she carefully explain in her diary that she barely knew him? Tough to tell. The diary is later edited by her to explain she must have misunderstood, that Robert Gould owned 3 horses and his instructions while he was near death, she has now been told, were for her to take charge of these 3 horses ONLY until they could be sent home to his wife. I am certainly not implying anything more than friendship- both displayed nothing more than that honor code we've come to understand was genuine. Both are mentioned in letters homes, but barely, from him, more from her although never as a romance. It just, plain does not seem likely his friend misunderstood Gould's last words! How is that possible? Gould is dead, not there to correct the man- so someone must have told him this was unacceptable, that he had to stop this gift, and he had to come up with some graceful way out of this already-given gift to Charlotte. Anyway- very interesting and does speak of mutual respect. Just nice- although whoa- what a let-down over that battlefield gift.

Charlotte Bridges Forten Grimké

"The long, dark night of the Past, with all its sorrows and its fears, was forgotten; and for the Future -- the eyes of these freed children see no clouds in it. It is full of sunlight, they think, and they trust in it, perfectly."
Charlotte Forten

Forten was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Mary Woods and Robert Bridges Forten, members of the prominent black Forten-Purvis families of Philadelphia. Robert Forten and his brother-in-law Robert Purvis were abolitionists and members of the Philadelphia Vigilant Committee, an anti-slavery network that rendered assistance to escaped slaves. Forten's paternal aunt Margaretta Forten worked in the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society along with her sisters Harriet Forten Purvis and Sarah Louisa Forten Purvis. Forten's grandparents were Philadelphia abolitionists James Forten, Sr. and his wife Charlotte Vandine Forten, who were also active in the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society.
In 1854, Forten attended the Higginson Grammar School in Salem, Massachusetts. She was the only non-white student in a class of 200. Known for emphasis in critical thinking, the school focused classes on history, geography, drawing and cartography. After Higginson, Forten studied literature and teaching at the Salem Normal School. Forten cited William Shakespeare, John Milton, Margaret Fuller and William Wordsworth as some of her favorite authors.
Forten was the first black teacher to join the American Civil War's Sea Islands mission, known as the Port Royal Experiment. During her time in South Carolina, she worked with many former slaves who were enthusiastic about her teaching. During this time, resided at Seaside Plantation.[2] She chronicled this time in her essays, entitled "Life on the Sea Islands", which were published in Atlantic Monthly in the May and June issues of 1864.[3] Forten struck up a deep friendship with Robert Gould Shaw, the Commander of the all black 54th Massachusetts Regiment during the Sea Islands Campaign and was present when the 54th stormed Fort Wagner on the night of July 18, 1863. Shaw was killed in the battle and Forten volunteered as a nurse to the surviving members of the 54th. In the late 1860s, Forten worked for the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, DC, recruiting teachers. In 1873 she became a clerk at the Treasury Department.

In December 1878, when Forten was 41, she married Presbyterian minister Francis J. Grimké, ( There's That Name again ) the nephew of abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimké. Francis J. Grimké was also the brother of Archibald Grimké, who served as U.S. consul in the Dominican Republic from 1894-1898. While her father served in the Dominican Republic, Angelina Grimké lived with Charlotte and Francis Grimke. Angelina Weld Grimké later became an author in her own right.

In 1880, Charlotte and Francis Grimké's daughter Theodora Cornelia was born. She died as an infant.

Charlotte Forten Grimké helped her husband in his ministry at the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., organized a women's missionary group, and continued her "racial uplift" efforts.

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 Northé


“The Evil Shadow of Slavery No Longer Hangs Over Them”

Charlotte’s Diary from her life on the islands can be read in full here; The Atlantic Monthly published it in sections.


"In the midst of the Civil War, Charlotte arrived at Oaklands, an abandoned plantation on St. Helena Island, off the coast of South Carolina. A precarious place for a volunteer, St. Helena was often rampant with yellow fever. The danger of a Confederate attack threatened constantly, and the Union soldiers seemed less than protective. Charlotte noted that they "talked flippantly and sneeringly of the Negroes."

About 140 freed children gathered for school in a single-room Baptist church nearby. As Charlotte began teaching, she found that many of her pupils spoke only Gullah, an English-based Creole language spoken by African Americans in the lowcountry of South Carolina. And though Charlotte yearned to feel a bond with her kinsmen, her upbringing and education set her apart. She actually had more in common with the white abolitionists there.
Charlotte Forten Letter to William Lloyd Garrison:

St. Helena's Island, South Carolina
November 20, 1862

" " My Dear Friend:
St. Helena's Island, on which I am, is about six miles from the mainland of Beaufort. I must tell you that we were rowed hither from Beaufort by a crew of negro boatmen, and that they sang for us several of their own beautiful songs. There is a peculiar wildness and solemnity about them which cannot be described, and the people accompany the singing with a singular swaying motion of the body which seems to make it more effective.

As far as I have been able to observe, the negroes here rejoice in their new-found freedom. It does me good to see how jubilant they are over the downfall of their 'secesh' masters... They are a truly religious people. They speak to God with a loving familiarity. Another trait that I have noticed is their natural courtesy of manner. There is nothing cringing about it, but it seems inborn, and one might almost say elegant. It marks their behavior toward each other as well as to the white people.

My school is about a mile from here, in the little Baptist church, which is in a grove of white oaks. These trees are beautiful - evergreen - and every branch heavily draped with long, bearded moss, which gives them a strange, mournful look.... At present, our school is small - many of the children being ill with whooping cough - but in general it averages eighty or ninety. It is a great happiness to teach them. I wish some of those persons at the North who say the race is hopelessly and naturally inferior could see the readiness with which these children, so long oppressed and deprived of every privilege, learn and understand....""

Charlotte also developed a deep friendship with Robert Gould Shaw, the Commander of the all black 54th Massachusetts Regiment during the Sea Islands Campaign and was present when the 54th stormed Fort Wagner on the night of July 18, 1863. Shaw was killed in the battle and Forten volunteered as a nurse to the surviving members of the 54th.

The few Southern whites remaining in the area openly showed their hatred, and Charlotte carried a pistol after someone made an attempt to break into her sleeping quarters. "The thought of falling into the hands of the Rebels," she wrote, "was horrible in the extreme."

She chronicled her time there in her essays titled, "Life on the Sea Islands," which were published in the Atlantic Monthly in the May and June issues of 1864. Under physical and emotional stress, Charlotte became ill. She began to experience terrible headaches and was forced to leave St. Helena and return to Philadelphia in 1864, after only two years. "


charlotte school freedmans school sc.png

A Freeman's School in South Carolina




Robert Gould Shaw, and excerpt of a letter he wrote to his mother mentioning Charlotte







Charlotte's writing, inclusive of excerpts from letters and her diary.



One of the piers at Beaufort, at the military installation, and a part of the Carolina coast- where I'm unsure but not sure you could spot a part NOT this lovely- at least before development could have left areas not as pristine.


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