Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Profiles in Black History: Part 3 - Charlotte Hawkins Brown

It's time to Break It Down!

In sifting through e-archives, searching for candidates for this third of four segments, I found it interesting that many notable African Americans, including Sojourner Truth (Isabella Baumfree), Harriet Tubman (Araminta Ross), and Madam C.J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove), were born with different appellations, or given names. Of course blacks born in the 18th and 19th centuries often changed their names to facilitate shedding, or at least diminishing their slave heritage.

In the 20th Century a number of blacks, who would later rise to prominence changed their names as a part of their embracing Muslim faith traditions. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad (Elijah Poole), Malcolm X (Malcolm Little), and The Honorable Louis Farrakhan (Louis Eugene Walcott) all changed their names as part of their conversion to Islam. And then there is the case of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Michael King, Jr.). During a 1934 visit to Europe, King’s father, a Baptist minister, was so fundamentally moved by the teachings of the German Protestant leader, Martin Luther, that he changed both his own name and that of his namesake to Martin Luther King, Sr., and Martin Luther King, Jr.

This post, however, is not about any of those luminaries. The subject for today is Charlotte Hawkins Brown. Her story, like so many others, is one of an African American woman of great intellect, indefatigable energy, and the compelling gift of resourcefulness. Ms. Brown was born in Henderson, North Carolina (not to be confused with Hendersonville). At a young age, her parents and she relocated to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

While attending high school, her keen intellect drew the attention of Alice Freeman Palmer, a former President of Wellesley College. Ms. Palmer became Charlotte’s first benefactor, and supported her educational endeavors after high school.

After successfully completing a course of study at the State Normal School in Salem, Massachusetts, Ms. Brown returned to her native North Carolina to accept a position as a teacher in a one-room school in Sedalia, NC. Over the course of time, her missionary zeal, dedication to educational principles, and commitment to teaching young black women led to the continued growth and development of what had begun as a one-classroom school.

In 1902, Ms. Brown transformed the school into a Junior College for African American women, and renamed it Palmer Memorial Institute, in honor of her benefactor. Later in 1915, she secured the support of another benefactor, Galen L. Stone, a Boston financier and philanthropist. Mr. Stone would become the Institute’s chief donor.

Charlotte Hawkins Brown was devoted to fostering and improving African American achievement; especially that of women. She was active in the National Council of Negro Women, and became the first black woman to serve on the National Board of the Young Women’s Christian Association. In 1952, Ms. Brown retired as President of the Alice Freeman Palmer Memorial Institute, better known as Palmer Memorial Institute (PMI), the school she founded in 1902. More than 1,000 African American students attended PMI between 1902 and 1970, when it closed.

Today, the restored facilities at PMI comprise the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum. This facility helps to focus an introspective lens on the contributions of Ms. Brown, but also on the historical and sociological themes commonly shared and expressed by African Americans during much of the 20th Century. Thank you for spending time to reflect upon another “Profile in Black History: Charlotte Hawkins Brown!” I’m done; holla back!

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