In 1883, Lottie Hawkins was born in Henderson, North Carolina. Her family later moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she attended Allston Grammar School, Cambridge English High School, and Salem State Normal School.
While she was a student at Salem, the American Missionary Association offered her a teaching position in North Carolina. Dissatisfied with the lack of educational opportunities for Negroes in the South, Hawkins accepted. The 18-year-old returned to North Carolina in 1901 to teach rural African American youth in Bethany Congregational Church in Sedalia, Guilford County. The school closed after one term, but young Hawkins decided to remain in the community and establish her own school.
In 1902, after vigorously raising money in New England, Charlotte Hawkins founded Palmer Memorial Institute, a day and boarding school. Established in a converted blacksmith’s shop, the school was named in honor of Alice Freeman Palmer, Charlotte’s mentor and benefactor. Mrs. Palmer also was the second woman president of Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
In its early years, Palmer’s curriculum emphasized agricultural and industrial education for rural living. Brown expanded the school to over 350 acres, which included a sizable farm. In succeeding years, the school began to much more strongily emphasize academics and cultural education.
Palmer was the product of Dr. Brown’s love, creativity, and vigorous leadership. The Institute was fully accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools at a time when few African American high schools enjoyed this recognition. During her 50-year presidency, over a thousand students graduated. They gained not only a diploma but also a firm idea of their own individual worth. Dr. Brown taught them well—they would be “educationally efficient, religiously sincere, and culturally secure.”
As the fame of the school spread, Dr. Brown became nationally known as an educator, lecturer, civil rights activist, author, and cultural leader. She received several honorary degrees. Her many associates included Mary McLeod Bethune, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Eleanor Roosevelt, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington.
Charlotte Hawkins Brown was a woman proud of herself and her people. She deeply believed in the American principles of freedom and justice for all human beings and expressed herself eloquently. She succeeded in showing for all the world to see what one young African American woman could do.
Dr. Brown died in 1961. Ten years and three administrations later Palmer closed its doors.
North Carolina proudly claims a multitude of African American citizens like Charlotte Hawkins Brown. To honor these citizens, the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources has established North Carolina’s first state historic site honoring the contributions of its African American citizens.
As a memorial to Charlotte Hawkins Brown, the site links Dr. Brown and Palmer Memorial Institute to the larger themes of educational and social history in North Carolina. It is located at the old Palmer Memorial Institute campus and features such programs as exhibits, tours of historic structures, and audiovisual presentations.
The nonprofit Charlotte Hawkins Brown Historical Foundation works cooperatively with the state and other interested individuals and organizations to promote scholarship, research, and the wider preservation and appreciation of North Carolina’s African American heritage.