Charlotte Hawkins Brown

Educator & Activist

By Jeanne Robinson

Charlotte Hawkins Brown was the Founder and President of Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina – one of the most renowned schools for African American youth in the U.S. in 1902. Dr. Brown was just 19 years old when she founded the school in rural North Carolina. She made the Palmer Institute into a well-respected and well-known center of education for African Americans.

Charlotte Hawkins Brown was born on June 11, 1883 in Henderson, NC. When she was still young, her family moved to Cambridge, MA. Brown was an excellent student and her commitment to education was noticed by prominent educator Alice Freeman Palmer, president of Wellesley College. Palmer became her mentor and paid for Brown’s secondary education. After a year of college, 18-year-old Brown went to work back in NC at the Bethany Institute, a rural school for African American youth. When the school closed a year later, Brown was encouraged to open her own school which she did in 1902. She named it the Palmer Institute in honor of her mentor, Alice Freeman Palmer. 

The Palmer Institute started by providing classes in the practical skills necessary for rural living, such as carpentry, sewing, and cooking. It followed the curriculum of Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute. However, in the 1920s and 1930s Brown gradually changed the school’s focus to academics. The Palmer Institute differed from most schools for African Americans because it offered college preparatory courses. Students studied math, literature, art, drama, and languages. Brown also stressed character development, instilling a philosophy to “Educate the individual to live in the greater world.” Brown felt that good manners were also important for her students. She explained her view on this subject in a speech she delivered on March 10, 1940 on the radio program, “Wings Over Jordan”:

“I have chosen to speak to you this morning on a subject which is very near to my soul, “The Negro and the Social Graces.” By social graces I do not mean an attitude of cheap servility, assumed for the purpose of currying favor. I mean simply doing the courteous thing and making a pleasing appearance—the practice of everyday good manners so generally lacking nowadays in the conduct of the average young person, regardless of race.”

Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown

Brown became known around the country, sharing ideas with other African American educators Mary McLeod Bethune and Nannie Helen Burroughs. The three of them were known as the “Three Bs of Education.” Brown lectured frequently, appeared on national radio, and published a book, “The Correct Thing to Do, to Say, and to Wear,” in 1940. Her frequent lectures on manners earned her the title, “The First Lady of Social Graces.” She wrote numerous essays, and advocated for civil rights, desegregation, anti-lynching, and women suffrage. Brown was also active in civic organizations in Sedalia, throughout North Carolina, in the South, and across the U.S. She was the first African American woman elected to the board of the national YWCA. 

On a speaking trip to the 1920 Memphis Conference, Dr. Brown was harassed on the Pullman Company train and forced to move to a different car. She later sued Pullman and won her lawsuit. 

As a frequent speaker, Dr. Brown advocated for women’s rights and African American women’s rights. 

“I repeat, no white woman has ever been called on to bear what the Negro woman has borne, for added to the struggle of womanhood of the white race to gain recognition in affairs of state in America, the Negro woman has had the handicap of color, prejudice, unjust discrimination and lack of respect for her personality.”

—Charlotte Hawkins Brown, speech, Madison Square Garden, New York, ca. 1942

Continuing her own education, Brown earned her undergraduate degree from the State Normal School in Salem, Massachusetts and a B.A. from Wellesley College in 1928. Dr. Brown received several honorary degrees, including from Howard University and Tuskegee Institute of Alabama. 

Dr. Brown worked tirelessly to mold the Palmer Institute into an exemplary school for African Americans. She ensured that the Palmer Institute’s board of trustees was made up entirely of African Americans. She served as president of the school for its first 50 years.

Upon her death on January 11, 1961, Dr. Brown was buried at the Palmer Institute. She was married for a few years to Edward S. Brown in 1911 and had no children of her own. The Palmer Institute closed in 1971 after a fire and several financial hardships. In 1987 the school opened as a North Carolina State Historic Site, the first NC site to honor the contribution of an African American and a woman.