As part of Moonstone Arts Center’s week-long celebration of Charlotte Forten’s life and work, the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH), the Philadelphia Writing Project and Moonstone are excited to offer a free writing workshop on Saturday, February 8th at NMAJH, 5th and Market Streets, from 1-3:30. This interactive workshop will use excerpts from Charlotte Forten’s journals, like the poem below, to guide writers in their own journal writing. A tour of NMAJH is included in the event. Students and their families are welcome to attend. This event is free, but registration is required.

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Charlotte Forten (1837-1914)

Charlotte Forten 2

May those whose holy task it is,
To guide impulsive youth,
Fail not to cherish in their souls
A reverence for truth;
For teachings which the lips impart
Must have their source within the heart.
— Journal of Charlotte Forten, 1853

Charlotte Forten was the first northern African-American schoolteacher to go south to teach former slaves. A sensitive and genteel young woman, she brought intense idealism and fierce abolitionist zeal to her work. As a black woman, she hoped to find kinship with the freedmen, though her own education set her apart from the former slaves. She stayed on St. Helena Island for two years, then succumbed to ill health and had to return north. In 1864, she published “Life on the Sea Islands” in The Atlantic Monthly, which brought the work of the Port Royal Experiment to the attention of Northern readers.

Charlotte Forten was born in Philadelphia in 1837 into an influential and affluent family. Her grandfather, James Forten, had been an enormously successful businessman and significant voice in the abolitionist movement. The family moved in the same circles as William Lloyd Garrison and John Greenleaf Whittier: intellectual and political activity were part of the air Charlotte Forten breathed.

She attended Normal School in Salem, Massachusetts and began her teaching career in the Salem schools, the first African-American ever hired. But she longed to be part of a larger cause, and with the coming of the Civil War Forten found a way to act on her deepest beliefs. In 1862, she arrived on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, where she was the only African American teacher in the Port Royal Experiment, teaching formerly enslaved people. Her Journal includes meetings with Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment (about which the movie Glory was made) and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first federally authorized African-American regiment.

Today, Forten is best remembered for her diaries. From 1854-64, she recorded the life of an intelligent, cultured, romantic woman who read and wrote poetry, attended lectures, worked, and took part in the largest social movement of her time. She was determined to embody the intellectual potential of all black people. She set a course of philosophical exploration, social sophistication, cultural achievement and spiritual improvement. She was, above all, dedicated to social justice.

In her later life, she lived in Washington D.C. and continued to support equal rights for African-Americans. She married the minister Francis Grimke, nephew of the crusading Grimke sisters. After many years as an invalid, she died in 1914, having been a voice for equality throughout her life.

“Monday, October 23, 1854: I will spare no effort to prepare myself well for the responsible duties of a teacher, and to live for the good I can do my oppressed and suffering fellow creatures.”

“Thursday, November 13, 1862: Talked to the children a little while to-day about the noble Toussaint [L’Ouverture]. 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.”


Charlotte_Forten 4

Charlotte Forten was born on August 17, 1837, in Philadelphia, PA. She kept a diary of her involvement with the abolition movement and became the first African-American hired to teach white students in Salem, MA. In 1862, Forten participated in the Port Royal Experiment, educating ex-slaves on St. Helena Island, South Carolina and recording her experiences in a series of essays. She died in 1914.

Educator, writer, and activist, Charlotte Forten was born into a wealthy and influential African-American family, Her diaries chronicle the social and political issues of the times—the fight to end slavery, the Civil War, and the state of race relations. Her grandfather, James Forten, made a fortune with an invention that assisted sailors with heavy sails. He was an outspoken abolitionist and supporter of William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery publication The Liberator. Forten’s parents were also active in the movement. Her mother, Mary, helped establish the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, and her father Robert often lectured in support of the abolitionist cause.

When Forten was 3 years old, her mother died. An only child, she spent much of her early years in solitude, educated by tutors. When she was 16 years old, her father decided to send her to an integrated school in Salem, Massachusetts, where she lived with the Remond family and began keeping a diary. In it, she wrote about her involvement in the antislavery movement in the Boston area. She deepened her connections to family friends in the movement, such as Garrison and John Greenleaf Whittier, during her time there. After completing her studies, Forten became a teacher in Salem. She was the first African-American teacher hired to teach white students in the town. Unfortunately, Forten had to resign after two years because of ill health. Returning to Philadelphia, Forten started writing poetry while she tried to regain her health.

In 1862, Forten traveled to St. Helena Island, South Carolina, to work as a teacher. There, she participated in what became known as the Port Royal Experiment. In 1861 the Union Army had taken over Port Royal, a Confederate military base on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. The area was home to thousands of slaves who had been abandoned by their owners. The former slaves were largely illiterate, and some did not know English. The Union Army wanted to help these people learn to live independently on local lands. For 18 months, Forten worked with children, adults and soldiers stationed there as part of this program. The only African-American teacher to participate in the experiment, Forten’s efforts to help the project became a personal mission, reaching outside the classroom, and she found herself visiting the homes of the various families in order to instill “self-pride, self-respect, and self-sufficiency.” Forten wrote about her experiences in her diary, and a series of her entries were later published in the form of the essay series “Life on the Sea Islands” for the Atlantic Monthly in 1864.

Forten began to experience terrible headaches and went home to Philadelphia in 1864. For several years she worked for the Teachers Committee of the New England Freemen’s Union Commission and later returned to teaching, spending time in Charleston, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C.

In 1878, Forten married Francis J. Grimke, a Presbyterian minister. He was the nephew of two famous social activists, Sarah and Angelina Grimke. Throughout the rest of her life, Forten wrote and spoke out on social issues, including women’s rights and racial prejudice. She also supported her husband’s work at the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. With her writings, she has provided an eyewitness account of a pivotal and turbulent time in American history, offering her readers a glimpse of such famous figures as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and many other leading activists of her day.

Prompt 1: Charlotte wanted to be a teacher and wrote the poem above in her journal. What do you want to do with your life? What will guide you to success? Write a poem or journal entry on how you see your future.

These Quotes are from Journal One: Salem, May 24, 1854 – December 31, 1856

Quote 2 -May 24, 1854 [first entry in Forten’s journal; age 16]. Rose at five. The sun was shining brightly through my window, and I felt vexed with myself that he should have risen before me; I shall not let him have that advantage again very soon. How bright and beautiful are these May mornings!—The air is so pure and balmy, the trees are in full blossom, and the little birds sing sweetly. I stand by the window listening to their music, but suddenly remember that I have an Arithmetic lesson which employs me until breakfast; then to school; recited my lessons, and commenced my journal. After dinner practiced a music lesson, did some sewing, and then took a pleasant walk by the water. I stood for some time, admiring the waves as they rose and fell, sparkling in the sun, and could not help envying a party of boys who were enjoying themselves in a sailing-boat. On my way home I stopped at Mrs. Putnam’s and commenced reading “Hard Times,” a new story by Dickens. . . .

Prompt 2 – Charlotte moved to a new city, started a new school and began her journal. Reflect on new beginnings. How do you start your day? How do you spend your time? Write a journal entry about your first day of school this year.

Quote 3 – June 2, 1854. Our worst fears are realized; the decision was against poor Burns, and he has been sent back to a bondage worse, a thousand times worse than death. Even an attempt at rescue was utterly impossible; the prisoner was completely surrounded by soldiers with bayonets fixed, a cannon loaded, ready to be fired at the slightest sign.16 To-day Massachusetts has again been disgraced; again she has showed her submission to the Slave Power; and Oh! with what deep sorrow do we think of what will doubtless be the fate of that poor man, when he is again consigned to the horrors of Slavery. With what scorn must that government be regarded, which cowardly assembles thousands of soldiers to satisfy the demands of slaveholders; to deprive of his freedom a man, created in God’s own image, whose sole offense is the color of his skin! And if resistance is offered to this outrage, these soldiers are to shoot down American citizens without mercy; and this by the express orders of a government which proudly boasts of being the freest in the world; this on the very soil where the Revolution of 1776 began; in sight of the battle-field, where thousands of brave men fought and died in opposing British tyranny, which was nothing compared with the American oppression to-day. I can write no more. A cloud seems hanging over me, over all our persecuted race, which nothing can dispel.

Prompt 3 – The year is 1854, and Anthony Burns, a 20-year-old Virginia slave, has escaped to Boston. But according to the Fugitive Slave Act, a runaway can be captured in any free state, and Anthony is soon imprisoned. The antislavery forces in Massachusetts are outraged, but the federal government backs the Fugitive Slave Act, sparking riots in Boston and fueling the Abolitionist movement. Charlotte gives a first-hand account of this event. What do you witness in the world around you? How do you feel about it? Write a journal entry about something you have seen that stirred your emotions.

Quote 4 – Aug. 17, 1854. My birthday [age 17].— How much I feel to-day my own utter insignificance! It is true the years of my life are but few. But have I improved them as I should have done? No! I feel grieved and ashamed to think how very little I know to what I should know of what is really good and useful. May this knowledge of my want of knowledge be to me a fresh incentive to more earnest, thoughtful action, more persevering study! I believe it will. . . .

Prompt 4 – We are all overwhelmed sometimes. What overwhelms you? How do you express it? What do you do about it? Write a journal entry that explores these questions.

Quote 5 – Sept. 5, 1854. . . . I have suffered much to-day,—my friends Mrs. P[utnam] and her daughters were refused admission to the Museum, after having tickets given them, solely on account of their complexion. Insulting language was used to them—Of course they felt and exhibited deep, bitter indignation; but of what avail was it? none, but to excite the ridicule of those contemptible creatures, miserable doughfaces who do not deserve the name of men. I will not attempt to write more.—No words can express my feelings. But these cruel wrongs cannot be much longer endured. A day of retribution must come. God grant that it may come very soon!

Prompt 5 – Charlotte reflects on an encounter with racism. Have you experienced this? How do
you react? Write a journal entry on an experience with prejudice because of race, sex, age etc..

Quote 6 – Sept. 12, 1855. To-day school commenced.—Most happy am I to return to the companionship of my studies,—ever my most valued friends. There is one young girl and only one—Miss [Sarah] B[rown] who I believe thoroughly and heartily appreciates anti-slavery,—radical anti-slavery, and has no prejudice against color. I wonder that every colored person is not a misanthrope. Surely we have everything to make us hate mankind. I have met girls in the schoolroom[—]they have been thoroughly kind and cordial to me,—perhaps the next day met them in the street—they feared to recognize me; these I can but regard now with scorn and contempt,—once I liked them, believing them incapable of such meanness. Others give the most distant recognitions possible.—I, of course, acknowledge no such recognitions, and they soon cease entirely. These are but trifles, certainly, to the great, public wrongs which we as a people are obliged to endure. But to those who experience them, these apparent trifles are most wearing and discouraging; even to the child’s mind they reveal volumes of deceit and heartlessness, and early teach a lesson of suspicion and distrust. Oh! it is hard to go through life meeting contempt with contempt, hatred with hatred, fearing, with too good reason, to love and trust hardly anyone whose skin is white,—however lovable, attractive and congenial in seeming. In the bitter, passionate feelings of my soul again and again there rises the questions “When, oh! When shall this cease?” “Is there no help?” “How long oh! How long must we continue to suffer—to endure?” Conscience answers it is wrong, it is ignoble to despair; let us labor earnestly and faithfully to acquire knowledge, to break down the barriers of prejudice and oppression. Let us take courage; never ceasing to work,—hoping and believing that if not for us, for another generation there is a better, brighter day in store,—when slavery and prejudice shall vanish before the glorious light of Liberty and Truth; when the rights of every colored man shall everywhere be acknowledged and respected, and he shall be treated as a man and a brother!

Prompt 6 – Charlotte was sent to Salem MA at the age of 16 because there were no integrated schools in Philadelphia and her father wanted the best schooling possible for her. In Salem she excels in school but experiences the hypocrisy of fellow students who are nice to her in school but ignore her on the street. Think about your own experience. How do you excel? How do you get the best possible education? If you have experienced the hypocrisy of supposed friends succumbing to peer pressure to ignore you, how do you deal with it? Create some poems or journal entries around these topics.

These Quotes are from Life on the Sea Isle, Atlantic Monthly, May & June 1864
This article was an edited version of the Journal October 1862-May 1864 by Charlotte Forten, age 24

Background: In 1861 the Union liberated the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and their main harbor, Port Royal. The white residents fled, leaving behind 10,000 black slaves. The question in Washington was “can the former slaves be educated and become productive members of society?” Several private Northern charity organizations stepped in to help the former slaves become self-sufficient. The result was a model of what Reconstruction could have been. The African Americans demonstrated their ability to work the land efficiently and live independently of white control. They assigned themselves daily tasks for cotton growing and spent their extra time cultivating their own crops, fishing and hunting. By selling their surplus crops, the locals acquired small amounts of property. Charlotte Forten was the only African American among the 50 teachers and hundreds of supervisors that made up the Port Royal Experiment.

Quote 7 – “It is wonderful how a people who have been so long crushed to the earth, so imbruted as these have been, — and they are said to be among the most degraded negroes of the South, — can have so great a desire for knowledge, and such a capability for attaining it. One cannot believe that the haughty Anglo-Saxon race, after centuries of such an experience as these people have had, would be very much superior to them. And one’s indignation increases against those who, north as well as south, taunt the colored race with inferiority while they themselves use every means in their power to crush and degrade them, denying them every right and privilege, closing against them every avenue of elevation and improvement.”

Prompt 7 – What are the results of repression? What are the results of “low expectations?” How do you survive and rise above these experiences?

Quote 8 -“Harry, the foreman on the plantation, a man of a good deal of natural intelligence, was most desirous of learning to read. He came in at night to be taught, and learned very rapidly. I never saw any one more determined to learn. We enjoyed hearing him talk about the “gun- shoot,” — so the people call the capture of Bay Point and Hilton Head. They never weary of telling you “how Massa run when he hear de fust gun.”
“Why did n’t you go with him, Harry?” I asked. “Oh, Miss, ‘t was n’t ’cause Massa did n’t try to ‘suade me. He tell we dat de Yankees would shoot we, or would sell we to Cuba, an’ do all de wust tings to we, when dey come. ‘Bery well, Sar,’ says L ‘If I go wid you, I be good as dead. If I stay here, I can’t be no wust; so if I got to dead, I might ‘s well dead here as anywhere. So I ‘ll stay here an’ wait for de “dam Yankees.”‘ Lor’, Miss, I knowed he was n’t tellin’ de truth all de time.– “But why did n’t you believe him, Harry?” “Dunno, Miss; somehow we hear de Yankees was our friends, an’ dat we ‘d be free when dey come, an’ ‘pears like we believe dat.”

Prompt 8 – How do you relate/respond to authority? Do you believe what you are told? How do you choose what it is you will do?

Quote 9 – “A very queer-looking old man came into the store one day. He was dressed in a complete suit of brilliant Brussels carpeting. Probably it had been taken from his master’s house after the “gun-shoot”; but he looked so very dignified that we did not like to question him about it. The people called him Doctor Crofts, –which was, I believe, his master’s name, his own being Scipio. He was very jubilant over the new state of things, and said to Mr. H., –” Don’t hab me feelins hurt now. Used to hab ‘me feelins hurt all de time. But don’t hab ’em hurt now no more.” Poor old soul! We rejoiced with him that he and his brethren no longer have their “feelins” hurt, as in the old time.”

Prompt 9 – Charlotte’s stories of the formerly enslaved gives us a different view of slavery. Think about having your feelings hurt all the time. What hurts your feelings? How do you protect yourself? How do you go on?


Our hope is that these workshops will produce a body of work by students which can be published in a chapbook entitled Finding Purpose: Students Respond to Charlotte Forten’s Journal. Charlotte was an amazing woman whose journal recorded the life of an abolitionist teacher in the mid-nineteenth century and is reflective of both herself and her society.

Submissions for the ChapBook must be sent by email to, be one page in type not smaller than times new roman 12point, and include a bio statement of the students name, age, school, workshop they attended and their email (communication can be through a teacher) as well as their poem or journal entry. Submissions can be sent any time between January 21 and February 16, 2014. A book release reading, where all participants will receive one copy of the chapbook, will take place on Saturday March 8, 2014. Selected students will be invited to present their work at the other Charlotte Forten events between March 9 and 16, 2014.

Charlotte Forten: Race & Education Schedule of Events

Saturday February 8, 2014 – 1pm
National Museum of American Jewish History

Student Writing Workshop co-sponsored by Philadelphia Writing Project
Finding Purpose: Students Respond to Charlotte Forten’s Journals Workshops
Using Charlotte Forten’s Journals as inspiration, students will create their own journal or poem.

Saturday March 8, 2014, 12 noon
Free Library of Philadelphia

Finding Purpose: Students Respond to Charlotte Forten’s Journals
Reading and chap book release party of a chapbook made up of student writing

Sunday March 9, 11am Sermon & 1pm Discussion
Mother Bethel AME Church

Faith in the Inner City – A Panel on the Urban Black Church and Students’ Educational Outcomes
Mark Kelly Tyler, Senior Pastor, Mother Bethel AME Church

Monday March 10, 2014, 5:30pm
Independence Branch

Film and discussion program -excerpts from the films Charlotte Forten’s Mission, a short presentation on Charlotte Forten and a discussion on how her quest for education is reflected in Philadelphia today.

Tuesday March ll, 2014, 5:30pm
Joseph E. Colman NW Regional Library

Film and discussion program -excerpts from the films Charlotte Forten’s Mission, a short presentation on Charlotte Forten and a discussion on how her quest for education is reflected in Philadelphia today.

Wednesday March 12, 2014, 6pm
African American Museum in Philadelphia

Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women – Discussion on Charlotte Forten’s Journal and the tradition of African American Women Writing – a discussion lead by Sonia Sanchez

Thursday March 13, 2014, 7pm
1199C Union Headquarters

Charlotte Forten: Race & Education – Discussion on Charlotte Forten’s life and how it reflects the African American Women’s Experience with Erica Armstrong Dunbar and Emma Lapsansky-Warner

Friday March 14, 2014, 6pm
Temple University

The Education of Black People – Discussion on Education and the African American Experience with Allan Ballard author of Education of Black Folk

This is part 7 of our on-going Hidden History project that looks at the life and work of activists and relates their work to issues of today. Charlotte Forten’s Journals reflect the life of an intelligent, cultured, romantic woman who read and wrote poetry, attended lectures, worked, and took part in the largest social movement of her time. Determined to embody the intellectual potential of all black people, she set a course of philosophical exploration, social sophistication, cultural achievement and spiritual improvement, and was, above all, dedicated to social justice. A look at her life stimulates a discussion on the education of African Americans in particular and the public education policy in general.

Hidden History

It is the history of the activists who struggled in the streets to make the United States live up to its promise of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness for everyone regardless of race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, etc. Two week long programs are presented twice a year consisting of about twenty presentations. Moonstone has presented programs on Thomas Paine, John Brown, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, John C. Fremont, Martin R. Delany, Ida B. Wells, and Voices of Womem (Lucretia Mott, Margaret Fuller & Harriet Jacobs).


Moonstone Inc. is a 501(C)3 non-profit founded in 1983. Our mission is education across the spectrum, intersecting ethnicity, race, gender, class, age and sexual orientation, encouraging dialogue and discourse.
Moonstone Inc. operates the Moonstone Preschool in South Philadelphia and The Moonstone Arts Center.

The Moonstone Arts Center’s mission is to inspire audiences, stimulate dialogue, foster understanding, and build communities. Our motto is “Education Through the Arts from the Cradle to the Grave.” This is our seventeenth year presenting Poetry Ink: 100 poets reading, we created The Celebration of Black Writing (which we operated for 18 years before giving it to Art Sanctuary), The Paul Robeson Festival for eight years, Festival Cubano for three years and various other arts and humanities programs over the last 30 years. Our Hidden History project presents city wide festivals celebrating the life and work of activists who made great contributions to the United States but are not in the history books. Moonstone is not connected with any university or major funding organization but exists through the generosity of the people who work with us. Learn more about us at

2 Comments » for CHARLOTTE FORTEN
  1. Hello: I learned about Charlotte Forten: Race & Education because I am on the Advisory Council for the Library Company of Philadelphia’s Program in African American History. The Historical Society & Archives of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas has original documents relating to the life of Charlotte Forten’s grandfather and uncles/aunts. As the director of St. Thomas’ Historical Society & Archives I’m sorry I didn’t know until tonight that there were other activities.

  2. What’s up, of course this post is truly pleasant
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