Friday, May 1, 2009

A free black female

‘A beautiful May-day - one of the loveliest I’ve ever seen.’ So wrote Charlotte Grimké - a young African-American woman fond of riding horses - one and half centuries ago today. She would go on to become a well-known anti-slavery campaigner and teacher. Her diary is considered one of the few extant documents detailing the life of a free black female in the north before the civil war.

Charlotte Bridges was born in 1837 into a prominent black Philadelphia family. Her grandfather had been a very successful businessman and a significant voice in the abolitionist movement, and her father and his brother-in-law were also abolitionists and members of the Philadelphia Vigilant Committee, an anti-slavery, slave assistance network. Charlotte was sent to school in Salem, Massachusetts, where she was the only non-white student in a cohort of 200. In 1856, she began work as a teacher there, and was the first African-American ever hired. She became a member of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, and proved to be an influential activist. Two years later, she contracted TB and returned to Philadelphia, where she wrote poetry while convalescing.

With the coming of the Civil War, Charlotte made her way to St Helena Island, South Carolina, where she became the first black teacher involved in the Sea Islands mission. Though wanting to feel a bond with the islanders, her upbringing and education meant she had more in common with the white abolitionists. She wrote about her time there in essays for the Atlantic Monthly.

In the late 1860s, she worked for the Treasury Department recruiting teachers. In 1878, she married Presbyterian minister Francis J Grimké. They had one daughter who died in infancy. Thereafter, Charlotte helped her husband in his ministry in Washington, organised a women’s missionary group and continued her civil rights efforts. She died in 1914, after many years as an invalid.

Wikipedia has more information on Charlotte’s life, as does the Black Past website. But today, Charlotte is best remembered for her diaries, particularly because they provide important first hand documentation of the life of a black woman in the period. They were first edited (by Ray Allen Billington) and published in the 1950s by Norton, New York. Then, in 1988, Brenda Stevenson edited them for publication by the Oxford University Press as The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké (available to preview at Googlebooks).

Here are two extracts I’ve culled from the Stevenson
 edition - the first is dated May day, exactly 150 years ago.

1 May 1859
‘A beautiful May-day. - One of the loveliest I’ve ever seen. Had a delightful drive through the country to Attleborough. The trees are perfectly beautiful - in full bloom. The grass is green, the birds as mirthful, the sky as cloudless, and the air as warm as in summer. Had a pleasant day at the C.’s delightful place. Am almost as deeply in love with Sallie C. ad G. is. She is a dear, warm-hearted girl! Saw some perfect violets.’

6 May 1859
‘Had a splendid ride of three miles, on horseback, to L.’s greenhouse. Before I reached it the air was laden with the fragrance of mignonette and heliotrope. Within was a scene - beautiful as fairy land - roses verbenas, clematic [sic], all kinds of flowers, in full bloom. One division of the greenhouse was filled with geraniums in bloom - the finest collection I’ve ever seen. My sturdy old horse - “Joe” - came back quite rapidly, and I enjoyed the sunset ride perfectly. No exercise is so thoroughly exhilarating and delighful to me as horseback riding. It makes me feel younger and happier.’

And here are two more extracts taken from a website of resources for teachers hosted by PBS:

5 November 1862
‘Had my first regular teaching experience, and to you and you only friend beloved, will I acknowledge that it was not a very pleasant one.’

13 November 1862
‘Talked to the children a little while to-day about the noble Toussaint [a leader of the Haitian revolution who died in 1803]. They listened very attentively. It is well that they should know what one of their own color could do for his race. I long to inspire them with courage and ambition (of a noble sort), and high purpose.’

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