As I was riding around the DuPont Circle neighborhood in northwest D.C. on this lunchtime bike ride, I saw a plaque mounted underneath a window on the front of a house located at 1608 R Street (MAP). So naturally my curiosity compelled me to stop and read it. The commemorative plaque indicated that the house formerly belonged to Charlotte Forten Grimké, and inasmuch as it possessed national significance in commemorating the history of the United States, was designated as a National Historic Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. Not knowing who Charlotte Forten Grimké was, or why her house would hold such importance, I researched it later after I got back from my ride. The following is what I found out.
Charlotte Louise Bridges Forten, who would be known as “Lottie,” was born on August 17, 1837, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Mary Virginia Wood and Robert Bridges Forten, members of an affluent and influential black abolitionist family. Her family was involved in the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, an anti-slavery network that rendered assistance to escaped slaves, as well as founding members of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, and young Lottie grew up in the family tradition to become one of the most influential antislavery and civil rights activists of her time.
Forten also grew up to become a teacher. She attended the Higginson Grammar School, a private academy for young women, where she was the only non-white student in a class of 200. After the Higginson School, she studied literature and teaching at the Normal School in Salem, Massachusetts, which trained teachers. Her first teaching job was in Salem, where she was the first African-American teacher to be hired in Massachusetts, and probably was the first in the country to teach white students. Later Forten was the first black educator to join the Port Royal Experiment, a program during the Civil War to set up schools to begin teaching freed former slaves and their children in South Carolina.
After the war Forten retired from teaching, and obtained a position as a clerk at the Philadelphia branch of the U.S. Treasury Department, where she worked recruiting teachers. It was while she was employed there that she met her future husband, Francis J. Grimké. They were married in December of 1878, when Charlotte was 41 years old and Francis was 28. The nephew of famed abolitionists and feminists Sarah Grimké and Angelina Grimké Weld, Francis was a Presbyterian minister. They eventually moved to D.C., where Francis became the pastor of the prominent Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in D.C., a major African-American congregation. They had one daughter, Theodora Cornelia, who died in infancy. She lived out the rest of her life with Francis in D.C., where after many years an invalid due to tuberculosis, she died of a cerebral embolism in 1914.
In addition to her extensive work as an antislavery activist and advocate for justice, one of the things for which Charlotte is best remembered is her writings. She also developed a passion for writing poetry, many of which focused on antislavery. During the Civil War, she wrote essays about her experience as a teacher among southern blacks which were published in The Atlantic Monthly under the title “Life on the Sea Islands”, which brought the work of the Port Royal Experiment to the attention of Northern readers. But it is her journals that stand out as the most prominent of her writings. Beginning in her childhood, she kept many journals diligently throughout her entire life. In fact, it is through these journals that we know today how passionate Charlotte Forten was against slavery. She wrote that she simply could not understand why so many whites thought that they were better than blacks. She also wrote about her daughter’s death and her busy life with her husband. Today, her journals are a rare example of documents detailing the life of a free black female in the antebellum era.