At the turn of the 20th Century, a 19-year-old African-American woman from Henderson, N.C., began building a school – the Palmer Memorial Institute – that would educate more than 1,000 black youth. Her name was Charlotte Hawkins Brown.
In our latest installment of "Her Voice: Revolutionary North Carolina Women," WFDD's Keri Brown speaks with reporter Bethany Chafin about one of the state's most impactful schools for African-American children.
On how Palmer Memorial Institute was started:
After a year of junior college [in the Northeast] Charlotte Hawkins Brown was recruited by the American Missionary Association or the AMA. This is 1901, and she was recruited to go back to North Carolina and teach at a small rural school. She arrives and she finds that the school is sort of in disrepair and so after about a year the AMA decided they were going to close that school. Charlotte Hawkins Brown is...only 18 or 19 at this time. The community had come to love her already. And so some of the parents and some of the community members said, "Stay, please stay. Let's build a school. We want you to be a part of this community. Let's see what we can do together." She says, "OK" and she begins raising funds.
She decides to move the school across the street, and she starts connecting with some of the individuals that her mentor, Alice Freeman Palmer, had put her in touch with in the Boston area. Through that channel, she was introduced to some philanthropists who donated to the cause, and eventually the school came to take up hundreds of acres and have multiple buildings. Of course it wasn't easy. It took an incredible amount of work. But that is how Palmer Memorial Institute was born.
On Alice Freeman Palmer and her influence on Charlotte Hawkins Brown:
The two met when Hawkins was in high school, and Palmer just really took a liking to Charlotte Hawkins Brown and decided that she was going to mentor her and also help fund her education after high school. Alice Freeman Palmer herself was an educator, and she also served as the president of Wellesley College for a time so she was a huge influence on Charlotte Hawkins Brown, and when it came time for Brown to name her school she actually named it after her mentor.
On how Palmer Memorial Institute differed from other African-American schools at the time:
One of the unique things about Palmer Memorial Institute was that Charlotte Hawkins Brown established a board of trustees that was made up entirely of African-American individuals. It was also one of the only schools in North Carolina to be offering the type of college preparatory courses that it was offering, in a junior and senior high setting. At the time, as far as educating African-American communities went, there were different philosophies. One of them was that African-Americans needed to receive vocational training and that needed to be the sole focus of their education. Well, Charlotte Hawkins Brown disagreed with that, and she took it further. Palmer Memorial Institute was an incredible example of a school that had a liberal arts education, and the classes included drama, music, art, math, literature and even more. And what's really interesting is the students there were studying African-American history at a time when no other high schools in North Carolina were teaching it.
On what happened to the school:
The school closed in 1971. It...had opened in 1902, and for over 50 years Charlotte Hawkins Brown was the leader of that place. Today actually the campus houses what's known as the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum. [It has] an emphasis on the contributions of African-Americans to education in North Carolina. Brown herself is remembered as a pioneer in education. Her school's philosophy was to educate the individual to live in the greater world. And so by first of all building Palmer Memorial Institute, by advocating that it have a well-rounded liberal arts curriculum, by fighting for this school and raising funds for year after year, she really helped to create an incredible place for learning.