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Cover of The Journal of Charlotte L. Forten featuring a photograph of an older Charlotte.
The Journal of Charlotte L. Forten edited by Ray Allen Billington

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Born the daughter of Robert Bridges Forten and Mary Virginia Forten in 1837, Charlotte Louisa Forten Grimké became a renowned poet, successful educator, and continued the Forten family legacy in the abolition movement in the United States.

Charlotte’s mother Mary was a founding member of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and later died when Charlotte was three years old. Charlotte continued living in Philadelphia with her father, the son of James Forten and Charlotte Vandine Forten who worked in the family’s successful sailmaking business before serving as sergeant major of the 43rd Regiment of United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, where she began receiving private tutoring as a teenager.

Charlotte moved to Salem, Massachusetts, where she continued her education and lived with Charles and Amy Remond, who were also active in the abolition movement. She enrolled at Higginson Grammar School for Girls and later attended nearby Salem Normal School (now Salem State University). During her teaching career, she became the first Black public school teacher in Salem and educated recently freed people of African descent in South Carolina during the Civil War. Charlotte married Rev. Francis J. Grimké in 1878, and the two settled in Washington, D.C., where they were part of a network of influential civil rights leaders and educators.

Five of Charlotte’s journals spanning from her teenage years through her mid-20s are now archived at the Moorland Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. Ray Allen Billington edited abridged volumes, titled The Journal of Charlotte L. Forten. Additional versions include Brenda Stevenson’s 1988 edited volumes as well as a young readers edition, Diary of Charlotte Forten: A Free Black Girl Before the Civil War, adapted for grades 4-6.

In these excerpts, read about Charlotte’s reflections on American liberty and equality along with inspiration she found in writers like Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Phillis Wheatley as well as from a meeting with Harriet Tubman.

Excerpt

A wish to record the passing events of my life, which, even if quite unimportant to others, naturally possess great interest to myself, and of which it will be pleasant to have some remembrance, has induced me to commence this journal. I feel that keeping a diary will be a pleasant and profitable employment of my leisure hours, and will afford me much pleasure in after years, by recalling to my mind the memories of other days, thoughts of much-loved friends from whom I may them be separated, with whom I now pass many happy hours, in taking delightful walks, and holding ‘sweet converse’; the interesting books that I read; and the different people, places and things that I am permitted to see. Besides this, it will doubtless enable me to judge correctly of the growth and improvement of my mind from year to year.
- C. L. F. Salem, May, 1854

May 30, 1854.
Rose very early and was busy until nine o’clock; then, at Mrs. Putnam’s urgent request, went to keep store for her while she went to Boston to attend the [New England] Anti-Slavery Convention. I was very anxious to go, and will certainly do so to-morrow; the arrest of the alleged fugitive [Anthony Burns] will give additional interest to the meetings, I should think. His trial is still going on and I can scarcely think of anything else; read again today as most suitable to my feelings and to the times, “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,” by Elizabeth B. Browning; how powerfully it is written! how earnestly and touchingly does the writer portray the bitter anguish of the poor fugitive as she thinks over all the wrongs and sufferings that she has endured, and of the sin to which tyrants have driven her but which they alone must answer for! It seems as if no one could read this poem without having his sympathies roused to the utmost in behalf of the oppressed.—After a long conversation with my friends on their return, on this all-absorbing subject, we separated for the night, and I went to bed, weary and sad.

Friday, July 28, 1854.
This morning Miss Creamer, a friend of our teacher, came into the school. She is a very learned lady; a Latin teacher in Troy Seminary, and an authoress... She seems to be a very nervous and excitable person, and I found myself frequently contrasting her appearance with that of our dear teacher, who looked so perfectly calm and composed... we felt very happy to hear her say afterwards that she was much pleased, and thought we did very well. I do think reading one’s composition, before strangers is a trying task. If I were to tell Mrs. R.[emond] this, I know she would ask how I could expect to become what I often say I should like to be –an Anti-Slavery lecturer. But I think that I should then trust to the inspiration of the subject.---This evening read “Poems of Phillis Wheatly [...],” an African slave, who lived in Boston at the time of the Revolution. She was a wonderfully gifted woman, and many of her poems are very beautiful. Her character and genius afford a striking proof of the falseness of the assertion made by some that hers is an inferior race... 

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Tuesday, August 1, 1854.
To-day is the twentieth anniversary of British emancipation. The joy that we feel at an event so just and so glorious is greatly saddened by thoughts of the bitter and cruel oppression which still exists in our own land, so proudly claiming to be “the land of the free.” And how very distant seems the day when she will follow the example of “the mother country,” and liberate her millions of suffering slaves! [...]

Saturday, January 31, 1862.
In B[eaufort] we spent nearly all our time at Harriet Tubman’s otherwise [sic] “Moses.” She is a wonder woman – a real heroine. Has helped off a large number of slaves, after taking her own freedom. She told us that she used to hide them in the woods during the day and go around to get provisions for them. Once she had with her a man named Joe, for whom a reward of $1500 was offered. Frequently, in different places she found handbills exactly describing him, but at last they reached in safety the Suspension Bridge over the Falls and found themselves in Canada. Until then, she said, Joe had been very silent. In vain had she called his attention to the glory of the Falls. He sat perfectly still – moody, it seemed, and w[ou]ld not even glance at them. But when she said, “Now we are in Can[ada]” he sprang to his feet – with a great shout and sang and clapped his hands in a perfect delirium of joy. So when they got out, and he first touched free soil, he shouted and hurrahed “as if he were crazy” – she said. How exciting it was to hear her tell the story. And to hear her sing the very scraps of jubilant hymns that he sang. She said the ladies crowded around them, and some laughed and some cried. My own eyes were full as I listened to her – the heroic woman! A reward of $10,000 was offered for her by Southerners, and her friends deemed it best that she sh[ou]ld, for a time find refuse in Can[ada]. And she did so, but only for a short time. She came back and was soon at the good brave work again. She is living in B[eaufort] now; keeping an eating house. But she wants to go North, and will probably do so ere long. I am glad I saw her – very glad.  

Charlotte L. Forten and Ray Allen Billington, ed., The Journal of Charlotte L. Forten (W.W. Norton & Company, 1981).

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