ON THIS DATE in 1902, nineteen-year-old Charlotte Hawkins opened the Alice Freeman Palmer Institute, a school for African Americans in Sedalia, North Carolina.
At the turn of the 20th century, most African American schools prepared students for jobs such as carpentry, printing, and farming. Hawkins’ school, which stood on a 15-acre site, started with a similar curriculum but expanded to include drama, music, art, literature, and more. Hawkins was determined to turn out well-rounded future leaders.
Educated in Salem, Massachusetts, eighteen-year-old Hawkins came to Sedalia in 1901 to teach at a broken-down school that was soon closed. Without a job, she returned north to raise money and opened a new school, Palmer Memorial Institute, in 1902. The school gradually expanded to more than 350 acres and attracted many students from well-off African American families.
A fierce opponent of Jim Crow laws, which treated African Americans as second-class citizens, Hawkins sometimes rented a local theater for a day so her students could watch movies without being relegated to the “colored” sections.
Hawkins married teacher Edward S. Brown in 1911 and thereafter went by Charlotte Hawkins Brown, although her marriage ended in 1915. She co-founded the National Council of Negro Women and became the first African American woman member of the Twentieth Century Club of Boston as well as the first to serve on the National Board of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA).