Saturday, 9 February 2013


I attended The Hotchkiss School, a lovely boarding school in Connecticut.  It was co-ed and multi-racial, although not nearly as diverse as it, thankfully, is now. I received a great education, and I made some life-long friends, for which I am truly grateful.

Primarily, in the Southern states, there were nearly 100 Black boarding schools in the U.S. before the 1960s, established by local Blacks, religious organizations and philanthropists, when the local governments failed to provide schools for Black children. These independent boarding schools had made up a significant part of the educational infrastructure for African-Americans between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement; and they were often the only places in a particular community where Black children could be educated.

Sadly, after the Civil Rights Movement and the reversal of the Jim Crow laws, many of these schools closed because of an increased demand for mixed-race schools. As of March 2011, only four of these schools remain: Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi, Redemption Christian Academy in New York, Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina and Pine Forge Academy in Pennsylvania. These four schools comprise the Association of Historically African-American Boarding Schools. I will be profiling at least one of these schools, later in the month.

To those who attended the Black boarding schools, the experience ingrained in them a profound sense of community, religious devotion for those at the church-affiliated schools, and a commitment to academic excellence. 

Today, a number of the boarding school alumni groups have reunions on an annual basis; and a few work on historic preservation projects relating to their alma maters. The four existing Black boarding schools have recently begun efforts to reach out to the alumni of the ones that have closed.

Laurence C. Jones, Charlotte Hawkins Brown and Rachel Crane Mather were The Founders’ of Black boarding schools. They faced very difficult circumstances; but prevailed, and to this day, are very highly–respected for the legacies they created.

Laurence C. Jones

Rachel Crane Mather

The founder of the Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina, Charlotte Hawkins Brown is said to have led her school to considerable prominence as one of the top academies for African-American students in the United States.

Born Lottie Hawkins in Henderson, North Carolina, Charlotte moved North with her family in the late 1880s to settle in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was an outstanding student in a very White world; and during her senior year of high school, Alice Freeman Palmer, a former Wellesley College president, provided financial support to enable her to further her education at the State Normal School, in Massachusetts.

Alice Freeman Palmer

With few resources, Charlotte established Palmer in 1902, naming it after her benefactor. Prior to launching Palmer, Charlotte had held an American Missionary Association teaching job at the Bethany Congregational Church in Sedalia.

Because a prisoners’ camp was pitched very near the church school, Charlotte went back and forth with the pastor to this camp to help the convicts who were building the public highway, and they expressed their gratitude by singing spirituals. She visited the farm people, sometimes wading through creeks to see the children and their parents on the other side, and sleeping in log cabins where the sun peeped through the crevices in the wall to awaken her in the morning. That school was seriously-dilapidated, and had to close within one year of Charlotte’s arrival.

However, Charlotte decided to stay in the community and opened Palmer, which she would head for 50 years. 

PMI Class of 1907

Charlotte Brown w/students, 1947

Like many of its counterparts, Palmer was founded as an agricultural and manual training facility. Over time, it evolved into an accredited college preparatory academy that drew Black students from around the nation and from overseas.

Dr. Roselyn Payne Epps, Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics and Child Health at the Howard University Medical School, remembers Charlotte Hawkins Brown as a capable and determined leader. ” She was a very dynamic and strong woman,” said Dr. Epps, who graduated from Palmer in 1947. She continued, “[My time at Palmer] was a wonderful experience. It was culturally enriching and a great education.”

Dr. Roselyn Payne Epps

During the next couple of years, Charlotte and others managed to raise money to erect the first and second campus buildings, despite rarely even having the funds to pay the teachers’ salaries, nor the budget for the buildings’ furnishings.   The first building was named, Memorial Hall; and the second, the Domestic Science Cottage, where Homemaking was taught.

Memorial Hall

Much of the money was provided by wealthy philanthropists, including Mr. & Mrs. Charles Guthrie, Mrs. Osborn W. Bright and Miss Mary R. Grinnell – all hailing from New York.  Later, in 1915 and 1925, Boston financier and philanthropist, Galen L. Stone, also provided significant funding to enable the school’s expansion – most crucially after two, major fires on campus, that threatened the school possibly needing to shut down.

Charlotte Hawkins Brown devoted her life to the improvement of the African-American community's social standing and was active in the National Council of Negro Women. In the 1920s she opposed the Jim Crow laws that imposed racial segregation, thereby compromising the rights of African-Americans in many areas, including education and voting. Among her numerous institutional efforts, she served on the national board of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), becoming the first Black woman to do so.

In 1952, Charlotte retired as president of Palmer Memorial Institute. She died in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1961, from heart problems, aged 77.

Charlotte Hawkins Brown

The school eventually had to close in 1971. During Charlotte’s tenure, more than 1,000 African-American students attended the school between 1902 and 1970.  Palmer graduates’ success is largely due to the excellent foundation that the school provided for them. Many alums went on to be school principals and teachers, doctors/dentists, professional singers and politicians.

In late 1982, Maria Cole, a niece of Dr. Brown's and widow of late singer, Nat King Cole, as well as friend, Marie Gibbs, of Greensboro, began an effort to obtain recognition of Dr. Brown's social and educational contributions, specifically in regards to the Palmer Memorial Institute (PMI). Both women, who were former students at PMI, sponsored meetings of Palmer alumni and enlisted support for this cause. They also met with North Carolina's Division of Archives and History to explore ideas.

Maria and Nat King Cole

Through the assistance of North Carolina Senator, Bill Martin, a special bill was passed in the 1983 General Assembly that allowed for planning by Archives and History of the state's first African-American state historic site as a memorial to Dr. Brown. In November 1987, the memorial officially opened as a State historic site, named the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum.

Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum

Palmer Memorial Institute created a life-long legacy of African-American secondary school education.  It is bittersweet that the doors are no longer open; but I guess, for our society to truly evolve, it probably makes the most sense for them not to be.

Sources: Diverse Issues, Wikipedia, Google Images, North Carolina Historic Sites

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