Born free to activist parents in 1837, Charlotte Forten’s family was part of Philadelphia's elite black community. Forten was educated by private tutors as her father did not want her to attend a public school. This was a privilege only wealthier families could afford. Later Forten moved to Salem, Massachusetts where she joined the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society. In 1856, she entered Salem Normal School to receive instruction in teaching.
In the 1850s Forten became increasingly involved in the abolitionist movement. She published several poems in anti-slavery publications such as The Liberator and The Evangelist. She also called for black women's participation in the abolitionist crusade. She joined circles of significant abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Lydia Maria Child.
In 1861, after Union troops occupied parts of the coastal Carolinas, Federal authorities recruited Forten and others to teach emancipated African Americans on the Sea Islands of South Carolina.
Her role in the community reached beyond education. She was also a song leader, storyteller, nurse, Sunday school teacher and companion to the elderly. She was one of the few northern black teachers to chronicle her time on the islands. The Atlantic Monthly published her work, "Life on the Sea Islands," in May and June of 1864.
After the war, Forten taught in Boston, MA and Charleston, SC. In 1872, she moved to Washington, DC, where she taught at a preparatory school later known as Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. One year later she became a clerk in the Treasury Department.
At 41 years old, she married the Reverend Francis J. Grimké, a former slave and minister of DC's Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. They had one child who died in infancy. From 1881 to 1886, the couple resided in Dupont Circle, Washington, DC.
In 1896, Forten helped found the National Association of Colored Women. Throughout the 1890s, she published poems about DC, including “At the Home of Frederick Douglass” and “The Corcoran Art Gallery.” Forten remained active in the civil rights movement until her death on July 23, 1914.
Sources: Stevenson, Brenda, ed. The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Turkel, Stanley. Heroes of the American Reconstruction: Profiles of Sixteen Educators, Politicians and Activists. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2005.