Charlotte Hawkins Brownwas born Lottie Hawkins on June 11, 1883, in Henderson, North Carolina to Caroline Frances Hawkins and Edmund H. Hight. Aspiring greater opportunities for her family of nineteen (extended relatives included), Charlotte Hawkins and her new husband, Nelson Willis, moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts when Brown was seven years old. Brown attended the Allston Grammar School, while her mother and stepfather operated a hand laundry. The Willises also boarded college students and tended to infants in their home for extra income.
Brown demonstrated leadership as early as twelve years old when she organized a kindergarten in the Sunday school at Union Baptist Church. At Cambridge English School, her sketches of classmates exhibited her talent in art. Her determination was evident in her undertaking of a baby-sitting job to pay for a silk she wanted for her graduation dress. It was during this job that Alice Freeman Potter, who later became an influential part of her life, discovered her. She also decided to change her name to Charlotte Eugenia Hawkins prior to graduation. Upon graduation, Brown attended the State Normal School in Salem afforded by Alice Freeman Palmer, who was asked for a recommendation by the young lady.
During her second year in Salem, she met a field secretary of the American Missionary Association (AMA), a group that provided schools for black children in the South. The secretary offered Brown a job, and she eagerly accepted. She opted to teach in a one-room school in Sedalia, North Carolina. Brown spent most of her salary purchasing clothing and school supplies for her impoverished students. After learning that the school was on the verge of being closed down by the AMA, she decided to open a new school; she was only nineteen at the time. With fifteen acres of land provided by the community, an old building from the minister of the Bethany Congregational Church, and money from associates of the deceased Alice Freeman Palmer, Brown was able to open her new school. She named it the Alice Freeman Palmer Memorial Institute in her late friend’s honor. In 1911, she married Edmund S. Brown, who moved to Sedalia and managed the boy’s dormitory at the school. In 1915, their marriage ended, and Mr. Brown accepted a teaching job in South Carolina. Charlotte was left raising her brother’s three daughters, and her aunt’s four children on her own.
Brown’s accomplishments include
the co-founding of the National Council of Negro Women, and serving as
president of the North Carolina State Federation of Negro Women’s Clubs
and the North Carolina Teacher’s Association. She was the first
African-American woman member of the Twentieth Century Club of Boston. She
also served on the National Board of the YWCA. Brown’s 1941 work, The
Correct Thing to Do, to Say, and to Wear was published, giving her the
title, “First Lady of Social Graces”. Her most famous article was, Mammy:
An Appeal to the Heart of the South (1919). Brown was an advocate of
civil rights and participated in several demonstrations. She was also an
instrumental part of the southern interracial women’s movement of the
1920s. In 1952, she retired as president of Palmer Memorial. Charlotte
Hawkins Brown died in 1961.
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