Charlotte was a well educated African American young woman. At a time when not many American children of any race attended high school, she was excelling at it. She attended teachers college for a year in Salem Massachusetts before landing a job as a teacher at the Bethany Institute, an American Missionary Association school in Guilford County, North Carolina.
A granddaughter of a slave, Charlotte Hawkins Brown was born Lottie Hawkins on June 11, 1883 in Henderson, North Carolina to Caroline Frances Hawkins and Edmund H. Hight, in 1890 her family moved north to settle in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the age of seven. Her mother taught her to read and to appreciate art and music. Caroline wanted her children to be well educated and to overcome the limits African Americans faced in the South. At Cambridge, Brown attended Cambridge English High School and Salem State Normal School.
Brown attended School, while her parents operated a hand laundry. The family also boarded college students and tended to infants in their home for extra income. While in school charlotte gained the attention of Alice Freeman Palmer, a former Wellesley College president. Palmer became a mentor to Brown and helped her advance her education by providing financial support. After graduating she went to the Massachusetts State Normal School at Salem, and studied to become a teacher.
While attending Salem Normal School, a junior college, Brown received an offer from the American Missionary Association (AMA) to teach in Sedalia, North Carolina, a small rural community. In the fall of 1901, she headed south. Brown spent much of her time helping in the community and writing letters. But her small school was in disrepair, and the AMA decided to close it the next spring. Many in Sedalia wanted to keep the school open and for Brown to stay on as its teacher.
Knowing she had the community backing her, she came up with a plan to keep the school alive. Charlotte returned to Massachusetts to seek advice. She met with Palmer who advised her go ahead with her plans for a school. Committed to her new venture, Brown campaigned tirelessly to raise funds for the school. In 1902, Brown established the Palmer Memorial Institute, a preparatory school for African Americans, in Sedalia, North Carolina-naming it after her influential advisor. Over time, the school earned a reputation for excellence. The institute transformed the lives of thousands of African American students.
After 50 years with the school, Brown retired as president of Palmer Memorial Institute in October of 1952. She devoted her life to the improvement of the African American community’s social standing and was active in the National Council of Negro Women. Among her numerous institutional efforts, she served on the national board of the Young Women’s Christian Association, the first African American woman to do so.
Brown was an advocate of civil rights and participated in several demonstrations. She also supported women’s rights, including the right to vote. She was an instrumental part of the southern interracial women’s movement of the 1920s. She died at Greensboro, North Carolina in January 11, 1961 from heart problems at the age of 77.