Charlotte Forten Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Charlotte Forten, an African American educator, author, and abolitionist, spent her life furthering the cause of fellow African Americans.

Early Life

Charlotte Lottie Forten was born on August 17, 1837, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Representing the fourth generation of Fortens born free in the United States, she was the only child of Robert Bridges Forten, and his first wife, Mary Virginia Woods Forten. Acknowledged as the most prominent and wealthy free black family in America, the Fortens avidly pursued reform, equality, and the abolition of slavery. Mary Virginia Woods Forten died when Charlotte was three. After her mother’s death, Charlotte grew up under the tutelage of her aunts and other relatives.

The ideals and influences of Charlotte’s family shaped the rest of her life. Her grandfather, James Forten, Sr., petitioned the United States Congress in 1800 to end the African American slave trade, establish guidelines to abolish slavery, and provide legislation that would weaken the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Congress denied the petition with a vote of eighty-five to one. Forten and his friends were not easily discouraged as they continued their pursuit for equality. Forten actively criticized legislation that would ban free blacks from Pennsylvania and the Colonizationists’ efforts to move free blacks to Africa. James Forten, Sr., believed that blacks in the United States were entitled to the country’s resources and equal protection under the law. Similarly, Charlotte Forten’s father, her aunts, and her uncles played vital roles in the abolitionist movement. The family also supported women’s rights.

Surrounded by the most prominent intellectuals of the era, Charlotte knew the importance of scholarly achievement. Robert Forten arranged for his daughter to have private tutors until she could have an excellent public education in Salem, Massachusetts. At the age of sixteen in 1854, she moved to Salem, where she prepared herself for a teaching career. Determined to please her father, Charlotte applied herself to her studies. Residing with prominent black abolitionist Charles Lenox Remond and his wife in Salem, Charlotte acquainted herself with William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, John Whittier, Abigail and Stephen Foster, and many other notable figures of the time. She thrived in her intellectual duties at the Higginson Grammar School. In 1855, she entered Salem Normal School and was graduated in 1856. Gaining a reputation as a local poet, she often submitted poems for publication. One of her poems, written in praise of William Lloyd Garrison, was published in the Liberator magazine in March, 1855.

Life’s Work

After graduation, Charlotte Forten began teaching and continued studying in her free time. She practiced French, German, and Latin and studied European and Classical history. She also enjoyed literature, including the works of her contemporaries.

The pursuit of knowledge became Forten’s primary interest. As a deeply religious person, she believed that God intended her to uplift and educate the people of her race. Her self-sacrificing nature made it difficult for Forten to appreciate herself and the contributions she made. She was aware of the racial hostility around her and sometimes allowed it to influence her self-image, in spite of compliments on her appearance, her manners, and her intelligence. Furthermore, her father’s move to Canada in 1853 left her somewhat estranged from her immediate family.

During her stay in Salem, Forten began the first of her series of five journals in which she discussed all aspects of her life including family, politics, education, and important leaders of the time. In 1856, she accepted a teaching position at Epes Grammar School in Salem. Soon, however, she had to return to Philadelphia after suffering from a respiratory illness and severe headaches. By July of 1857, she was back at Epes, only to resign in March, 1858, because of her recurrent health problems.

Again Charlotte returned home where she rested and taught privately. The extra time allowed her to write poetry and essays for publication. In May of 1858, her poem entitled “Flowers” was published in Christian Recorder magazine. In June of that year, her essay “Glimpses of New England” appeared in the National Anti-Slavery Standard. “The Two Voices” and “The Wind Among the Poplars” were printed in 1859. In January of 1860, “The Slave Girl’s Prayer” was published in the National Anti-Slavery Standard.

Forten regained her health sufficiently to return to Salem in September of 1859, to accept a teaching post at the Higginson Grammar...

(The entire section is 1951 words.)