Authors: Charlotte L. Forten Grimké

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet, teacher, and abolitionist

Identity: African American

Author Works


“Glimpses of New England,” 1858 (in National Anti-Slavery Standard)

“Life on the Sea Islands,” 1864 (in Atlantic Monthly)

“Personal Recollections of Whittier,” 1893 (in New England Magazine)

The Journal of Charlotte L. Forten, 1953 (Ray Allen Billington, editor)

The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké, 1988 (Brenda Stevenson, editor)


“To W.L.G. on Reading His ‘Chosen Queen,’” 1855 (in Liberator)

“The Two Voices,” 1859 (in National Anti-Slavery Standard)

“The Wind Among the Poplars,” 1859 (in National Anti-Slavery Standard)

“The Slave-Girl’s Prayer,” 1860 (in National Anti-Slavery Standard)

“A Parting Hymn” and “The Angel Visit,” 1863 (in William Wells Brown, The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements)


Madame Thérèse: Or, The Volunteers of ’92, 1869 (of Émile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrain’s historical novel Madame Thérèse: Ou, Les Volontaires de 1792)


Charlotte L. Forten Grimké (GRIHM-kee), black poet, teacher, and abolitionist, was the daughter of Robert Bridges Forten and Mary Virginia Wood Forten. Since the end of the eighteenth century, her father’s family had been active in abolitionist activities, starting with her grandfather, James Forten (1766-1842). After serving in the American Revolution as a ship’s powder boy, James Forten began work in a sailmaker firm in Philadelphia. He became foreman and, as a result of an invention for handling sails, accrued a fortune of $100,000. He became a leader in the Philadelphia black community and from 1800 on devoted himself to the antislavery movement. He opposed the objectives of the American Colonization Society (sending African Americans back to Africa) but later became an enthusiastic supporter of William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator. The elder Forten’s children and their spouses were also active abolitionists, and thus Charlotte grew up in the fine residence of her grandfather amid this antislavery atmosphere.{$I[AN]9810001810}{$I[A]Grimké, Charlotte L. Forten}{$S[A]Forten Grimké, Charlotte L.;Grimké, Charlotte L. Forten}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Grimké, Charlotte L. Forten}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Grimké, Charlotte L. Forten}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Grimké, Charlotte L. Forten}{$I[tim]1837;Grimké, Charlotte L. Forten}

Her mother died when Charlotte was three, and the girl was brought up by her relatives. She was taught by tutors until she was sixteen because her father did not want to send her to segregated schools. However, in 1854 he sent her to Salem, Massachusetts, to live with abolitionist friends, Charles L. and Amy Remond, and to attend the nonsegregated Higginson Grammar School, where Charlotte excelled. Her poem “A Parting Hymn” was judged the best in her class and was commended at the graduation ceremony in February, 1856. During the previous year, her poem “To W.L.G. on Reading His ‘Chosen Queen’” had appeared in the Liberator; it was her first published work.

Upon her arrival at Salem, Charlotte Forten had begun to keep a journal, which she continued, with some interruptions, until 1864. She was a shy and somewhat lonely young woman and confided her thoughts, emotions, and ambitions to this diary. Her chief goal was to do well for the honor of her race. After attending the State Normal School at Salem, she taught at the Epes Grammar School there until ill health (she suffered throughout her life from tuberculosis) forced her to resign in March, 1858.

During the next four years, Forten taught and cared for her sister Harriet Purvis’s children in Philadelphia, taught now and then in Salem as well as in Philadelphia, and continued writing poems as well as an essay, “Glimpses of New England,” which were published in various periodicals. In the fall of 1862, at the suggestion of her friend poet John Greenleaf Whittier, she successfully applied for a teaching position in the “Port Royal experiment,” which involved instructing “contraband slaves” on the sea islands off the coast of South Carolina. (Union troops had captured the islands at the end of 1861.) These slaves had long been isolated, and they spoke a dialect known as Gullah. During her stay on these islands from October, 1862, through May, 1864, Forten was fascinated by the older contrabands and charmed by their singing of spirituals. However, she experienced difficulties in teaching the children and in understanding them. She also witnessed the formation of a black regiment of soldiers on the islands and felt pride as they set off to take part in the attack on Charleston in July, 1863. Forten recorded her experiences in her journal and in an article which was published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1864.

Between 1865 and 1871, Forten worked as the secretary of the Teacher’s Committee of the New England branch of the Freedman’s Union Commission. In 1872, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she taught for a year and then took a position as a clerk in the U.S. Treasury Department. She met the black pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, Francis Grimké, who was twelve years younger; the two were married in December, 1878. Their thirty-five-year marriage was a happy one, marred only by the death of their six-month-old daughter, Theodora Cornelia, in 1880 and by separations caused by the ill health of Charlotte. Charlotte Forten Grimké gave up public activity and came to see her position in life as bound up with her husband’s work. Between 1885 and 1889, the couple resided in Jacksonville, Florida, because of Charlotte’s ill health; at this time, she began writing in her journal again. In 1893, her essay “Personal Recollections of Whittier” was published. She became bedridden in 1913 and was cared for by her devoted husband. She died on July 22, 1914, and was buried in Washington, D.C.

BibliographyBarker-Benfield, G. J., and Catherine Clinton. Portraits of American Women: From Settlement to the Present. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. This publication is a combined volume presenting biographies of American women, arranged according to historical eras. Each biography discusses the impact each woman made on her contemporaries. The book is amply illustrated.Braxton, Joanne M. “Charlotte Forten Grimké and the Search for a Public Voice.” In The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women’s Autobiographical Writings, edited by Shari Benstock. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. An analysis of Forten’s complete journals, based on archival research and a personal appreciation of the journals. The author maintains that, as a young woman, Forten used her journal as a means to try out different poetic voices.Eldred, Janet Carey, and Peter Mortensen. Imagining Rhetoric: Composing Women of the Early United States. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002. Features Grimké’s journal.Forten, Charlotte L. The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké. Edited by Brenda Stevenson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. This volume comprises the five journals written by Charlotte Forten. They provide insight into the politics and people of the abolitionist era. The editor provides an introduction and notes for each journal, as well as a chronology and brief biographies of people mentioned.Hughes Wright, Roberta. A Tribute to Charlotte Forten, 1837-1914. Southfield, Mich.: Charro, 1993. Includes bibliographical references.Lapsansky, Emma Jones. “Feminism, Freedom, and Community: Charlotte Forten and Women Activists in Nineteenth Century Philadelphia.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 113 (1989). Argues that Forten restricted her private life and dedicated herself to issues of race and gender.McPherson, James M. The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964. A complete and thorough analysis of the abolitionists, including Forten, and the roles they played during and after the Civil War. Includes a bibliographic essay describing the manuscripts, correspondence, publications, and archives used.Quarles, Benjamin. Black Abolitionists. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1991. Providing the reader with a thorough background of the African American abolitionists, the author covers the early efforts of black preachers and writers to the antislavery underground; the book also describes the organizational efforts of later abolitionists. This volume includes detailed bibliographic notes separated by chapter.Sherman, Joan R. Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989. Argues that her mature writings are creative and sensitive.Wilson, Edmund. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966. Presents an interpretation of Forten’s activities on the Sea Islands during the 1860’s.
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