At the time of Charlotte L. Forten’s birth, the Fortens had received great respect for their unique blend of political consciousness and social and economic privilege. Her grandfather, James Forten Sr., an accomplished sailmaker, invented a device for easier handling of the sails which made his fortune. His financial security allowed the Fortens many material comforts then unusual for Black people. At the same time he put considerable energy in the abolitionist movement and was known for his unfailing efforts to end slavery.

Charlotte Forten, daughter of Robert Bridges Forten and Mary Virginia (Woods) Forten, was born August 17, 1837. Born into a close-knit family of activist abolitionists and feminists, young Charlotte was indoctrinated early into a role of political and social activism. She was educated in Salem Massachusetts at the Higginson Grammer School and the Salem Normal School, and was immediately offered a teaching position at the Epes Grammer School – the first Black woman to hold such a position in Salem. She had a passion for education and culture, reading as many as 100 books a year, and studied French, German and Latin.

From her childhood, she believed it was her duty to serve her race and she wanted to fulfill this responsibility. Soon after she began to teach, however, she began to suffer severe headaches and ill health which would affect her most of her life. Despite her bouts with illness, she could not bear a life of uselessness and dependency. In 1862 she was told of a “social experiment” in South Carolina to prove the educability of Blacks, and she became one of the first Black teachers to arrive in the South after the Civil War. The job was physically and emotionally challenging for her and she faced mixed responses from teachers and military personnel. Her failing health forced her return in 1864.

She moved to Washington, DC in 1871 where she taught at the M St. School (later renamed the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School) and later as a clerk in the US Treasury Department. It was in Washington, DC that she married the Reverence Francis Grimke, minister of the 15th St. Presbyterian Church. She spent much time after that working with her husband in his mission to the world – speaking out and writing against racism and oppression. Between 1882 and 1884, she served on the Board of Managers of the National Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children, and again from 1902-1906.

In continuing poor health but surrounded by good friends, she died in her home in Washington, DC on July 22, 1914 at the age of 76.