The town of Sedalia in Guilford County may be small, but it has an outsized impact when it comes to its educational legacy.
Nestled along NC 70, between Greensboro and Burlington, sits an old campus of assorted brick buildings.
This is what was once Palmer Memorial Institute — which started as a rural African American school and became a premier boarding school for the Black middle class.
Founded in 1902, it was all made possible thanks to the vision of a 19-year-old Black woman. Her name was Charlotte Hawkins Brown. She led and guided this place for over 50 years.
The students who studied here came from across the country and around the world.
"There were a total of 250 students on campus at its peak," says Liz Torres Melendez, the assistant site manager at the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum. "And that came in the 1940s. About 20 to 25 spots opened up every year. And the waitlist to be admitted to Palmer was about 200 students long."
Torres Melendez gives tours of the campus and some start at what was once Hawkins Brown’s home known as Canary Cottage.
The house opens into a wide and spacious parlor, with a piano on one side and a fireplace and seating area on the other. There are three old photographs on the mantle.
“The photo in the center here is of Dr. Brown's grandmother. So this is Rebecca Hawkins, "Torres Melendez says.
"So Rebecca was born enslaved on the Brodie Plantation here in North Carolina. And at a relatively young age, she was sold to the Hawkins family, which is where the Hawkins name comes from,”
Hawkins Brown herself was born not far from here, in Henderson, North Carolina. Her family moved up north when she was young, and that’s where the educator received her professional training. When an opportunity opened up in Sedalia, she returned to her home state.
With the help of her friend, mentor, and benefactor — a woman named Alice Freeman Palmer — Hawkins Brown started Palmer Memorial Institute. In its early years, the school provided a more industrial, agricultural, and domestic kind of training. Gradually the curriculum became focused on a liberal arts education.
When the school was first established it primarily served local students.
“Dr. Brown worked really hard and advocated with other community leaders for the Sedalia public school to open up," says Torres Melendez. "And so when that opened in 1937, is when tuition starts to be pushed up here at Palmer a little bit. And when you see more of the Black middle class being the central student population here on campus.”
It wasn’t until the late 1940s though that tuition was enough to cover the school’s operating costs, and Palmer never had an endowment. That meant that every summer, Hawkins Brown was fundraising so they could open their doors once again in the fall.
Torres Melendez says that in addition to being an educator, Hawkins Brown was highly involved in civic work, and there are copies of some of her most famous speeches on what was once her desk.
“She traveled the country, speaking about things like racial equity, social justice, labor rights, women's rights, and, of course, the social graces.”
Hawkins Brown wanted her students to have access to the people she knew and was meeting as she traveled.
"She always invited people back to campus to lecture to her students or maybe teach a couple of classes,” says Torres Melendez.
One of these guests? Poet and author Langston Hughes.
"And so whenever those folks would come, they would share a meal with her here before going to meet students."
Meals, Torres Melendez says were strategic in many ways. They were an opportunity to teach social and interpersonal skills at the boarding school, but offered much more as well.
"Meals were such an organizing tool for Black folks in the 1940s and 50s. So it wasn't just about looking right or doing the right thing. It was also about gaining political power and access through those moments."
Charlotte Hawkins Brown served as the president of Palmer until 1952, and during her presidency over 1,000 Black students graduated from the school. After her retirement, she remained involved as a financial advisor. Hawkins Brown died in 1961 and is buried on campus.
"So it's a really, really beautiful area that's become a really special place on campus and really kind of gives her legacy the weight that it deserves," says Torres Melendez.
By the early 70s, Palmer Memorial Institute was having a challenging time. A crucial building burned down, and the school was experiencing some financial hardship. Integration had brought shifts for schools like Palmer and enrollment had dropped.
“The summer after graduating the class of 1971, the Board of Trustees voted to close the Palmer Memorial Institute,” says Torres Melendez.
But thanks to the efforts of alumni including Maria Cole, Hawkins Browns’ niece, and wife of Nat King Cole, a foundation was created to preserve the legacy of Palmer and the campus became a state historic site in 1987.
You can learn more by visiting the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum in Sedalia, NC. It’s open Tuesday through Saturday.