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Charlotte Hawkins Brown
Currently on display
From the Smithsonian Collection

Charlotte Hawkins Brown was born on June 11, 1883, in Henderson North Carolina. Her family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1888. Charlotte was a genteel well educated girl, who attended teachers college for a year in Salem Massachusetts before going to work at the Bethany Institute, an American Missionary Association school in Guilford County, North Carolina. Charlotte's level of education was unusual for the times. Only a small fraction of American children of any race attended high school in the 1890s.

In 1902, after the Bethany school closed, Hawkins Brown founded the Freeman Palmer Memorial Institute at Sedalia, near Greensboro. Originally, Palmer had much in common with Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute: it was an agricultural and manual training facility. But over the course of Brown's 50 year tenure, the school became an elite school for the sons and daughters of affluent African Americans.

Despite her gentility, her educational achievements, and her rejection of the idea that African Americans were inferior, Brown lived in a segregated world. As she said in the 1930s "I have had to accept segregation because my people who need what I have to give live in larger numbers in the land of segregated ideals. Buy my philosophy is that position or place can never segregate mind or soul. I sit in a Jim Crow Car, but my mind keeps company with the kings and queens I have known." Actually, Brown challenged segregation on more than one occasion, as did many other African Americans.

Physical Description
cast figure. In exhibition, representing Charlotte Hawkins Brown
Massachusetts, North Carolina

Charlotte Hawkins Brown was an elite, educated African American woman whose 'uplift' strategy for African Americans reflected the tenor of the times. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, African Americans in the South, while technically free, experienced legal discrimination, violence, and disenfranchisement. In the 1880s and 1890s, states began passing laws which segregated transportation and public accomodation. After the famous court case, Plessy v. Ferguson enshrined segregation in the law of the land, "Jim Crow" laws had a pervasive and pernicious effect on the daily lives of African Americans. The Jim Crow era has been called the 'nadir' of African American life by some historians. African Americans, like Charlotte Hawkins Brown, did protest Jim Crow laws, but it would take the modern mass movements of the 1950s Civil Rights era to erase de jure segregation from the nation's law books.

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