African American Education Spotlight Series: Charlotte Hawkins Brown

This month we are highlighting our African American Education Digital Collection in celebration of Black History Month. Currently, this collection contains materials from the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum as well as materials from the Division of Negro Education of the Department of Public Instruction.

Today’s post features Charlotte Hawkins Brown. As an educator, civic leader, and founder of the Palmer Memorial Institute, she was a pioneer in education and demonstrated unwavering dedication to helping her students reach their greatest potential.


Charlotte Hawkins Brown, top center, is seen photographed with four other Palmer Memorial Institute faculty members, ca. 1902. Photo courtesy of the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum. African American Education Digital Collection. State Archives of NC. [source]

Charlotte Hawkins Brown was born in Henderson, NC on June 11, 1883. Most of her schooling was done in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her family moved shortly after she was born to escape racial oppression. It was there, during her senior year of high school, where she met Alice Freeman Palmer, the first female president of Wellesley College. Palmer mentored Brown and sponsored her college education at the Salem Normal School in Massachusetts.

Brown left Salem for a teaching position at a school in North Carolina associated with the American Missionary Association (AMA), but she quickly turned to raising funds to open her own school in Sedalia, NC. With some help from the AMA, the Alice Freeman Palmer Institute was founded in 1902, renamed to Palmer Memorial Institute upon Palmer’s death shortly thereafter. Fundraising and donations from generous philanthropists who supported Brown’s mission helped secure a few hundred acres of land and some brand new buildings within the first few years.

Once Palmer was established, she devoted all of her time and energy to the school, cementing it as one of the nation’s premier boarding schools for African Americans. From a young age, Brown’s mother and grandmother instilled in her the value of having an education and cultural aspirations. All she had worked towards was becoming a reality, and she was able to create an enriching environment for an underserved community and provide students with an expansive education through and beyond vocational studies, as well as the tools needed to become self-sufficient.

Under the teachings of Brown, each student was held to her high standards and they grew to be “educationally efficient, religiously sincere, and culturally secure.” Brown strived to “instill high qualities of culture in her students,” first and foremost; “incorrigibles need not apply” (McCluskey, 2014). An article from the Greensboro Daily News in 1951 noted that she aimed to “teach the dignity of labor [and] the emphasis of politeness and general culture” (Brown, 1961).


Dr. Brown, left, photographed with Nat King Cole, Maria Cole, and Carole “Cookie” Cole, March 1948. Maria was Brown’s niece and attended Palmer Memorial Institute, graduating in 1938. Photo courtesy of the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum. African American Education Digital Collection. State Archives of NC. [source]

Brown was always very active in helping the people in her community, serving as an organizer who helped others with medical care, child care, and assisting people in becoming homeowners (Hoffman, 2000). Brown was not only known as an educator and community leader, she also regularly spoke on behalf of women’s suffrage and racial equality. Throughout the years, she received several honorary degrees and served as a founding member of the National Council of Negro Women, charter member of the Southern Commission for Interracial Cooperation, member of the National Negro Business League, president of the North Carolina Federation of Negro Women’s Clubs, and as president of the North Carolina Teachers Association.

“Charlotte Hawkins Brown was a woman with pride in herself and her people. She had a deep belief in the American principles of freedom and justice for all human beings and she expressed this commitment eloquently. She succeeded in showing for all the world to see ‘what a young black woman could do'” (“Charlotte Hawkins Brown” article, NCPedia, 2009).

Related Resources

Brown, Hugh Victor. (1961). A history of the education of negroes in North Carolina. Raleigh, N.C.: Irving Swain Press, Inc.

Burns, A. M. (1979). Brown, Charlotte Hawkins. NCPedia. Retrieved from

“Charlotte Hawkins Brown.” (2009). NCPedia, adapted entry from the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum website, Division of Historic Sites and Properties, Department of Cultural Resources. Retrieved from

Hoffman, Lydian Charles. (2000). Charlotte Hawkins Brown: The evolution of a North Carolina legacy. Tar Heel Junior Historian, 39, 15-17. Retrieved from

McCluskey, Audry Thomas. (2014). A forgotten sisterhood: Pioneering Black women educators and activists in the Jim Crow South. Lanham, M.D.: Rowman & Littlefield.

Sicherman, Barbara & Kantrov, Ilene. (1980). Notable American women: the modern period: a biographical dictionary. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Silcox-Jarrett, Diane. (1995). Charlotte Hawkins Brown: One woman’s dream. Winston-Salem, N.C.: Bandit Books.

Wadelington, Charles W. (2006). Palmer Memorial Institute. NCPedia. Retrieved from