President John Keenan, alumni, staff and friends Step into the Past, Present and Future

Inspiration Abounds in Charlotte Forten Legacy Room

By JIM GLYNN ’77


An abolitionist, an educator, a writer, a poet, a translator, and a women’s rights advocate, Charlotte Forten, among all else, is a defining example of the power of education.

In 1856, she became the first African-American to graduate from Salem Normal School. A true pioneer, she began applying the knowledge and teaching skills she acquired to become an educator and an activist during the Civil War. She was the first African-American schoolteacher from the North to travel south to teach former slaves. She continued to teach in schools in the South and in Washington DC after the War, and then worked actively for civic and social equality for African Americans and women, including the right to vote. Throughout her life she was recognized as an important poet, diarist and essayist, a literary voice for her people

Born and raised in Philadelphia in an abolitionist family, Charlotte left her home for Salem during a time of great racial turmoil in the 1850s. She believed that social justice was not a lofty unattainable ideal – but an intrinsic universal value -- and that education was the key to achieving it.


She choseArriving in Salem to pursue that education, and she graduated from the Higginson School and then Salem Normal, where she was class poet.


Former Academic Associataite Dean and vVisiting lecturer Gwendolyn Rosemond offered her insight: “To place Charlotte in context, understand that, with enslavement came the inability to read, and with that inability came the assumption that you lacked intelligence.”


“That assumption was wrong. People underestimated the intelligence of the slaves. With intelligence came opportunity and with opportunity came education and literacy-- and with that, slave owners feared rebellion.”


While Charlotte’s story is linked to the past, it doesn’t stay there. Located just off the hallmark glass staircase of Meier Hall on North Campus, room 316B beckons today’s students to take a step back in time. Floor-to-ceiling windows shed abundant light that leads to a room where the walls are lined with the life story of Charlotte Louise Bridges Forten Grimké.


The Charlotte Forten Legacy Room, dedicated on February 28, 2018, is a tribute to her profound 77-year life. Charlotte kept a diary when she arrived in Salem, and today the diary provides a rare historical perspective and a unique look into the life of, as described by a PBS documentary Schoolhouse Pioneers, “a sensitive and genteel young woman, who brought intense idealism and fierce abolitionist zeal to her work.”


“The Charlotte Forten story is inspiring,” points out Fillette Lovaincy ’19G, a student in pursuit of a master’s degree in higher education and student affairs and the graduate assistant for Salem State’s newly-formed Leadership, Engagement, Advocacy, and Diversity (LEAD) office.

The Present and the Future


“Charlotte was not one dimensional. She had many skills, but she was more than just skillful. She had many talents that are both relevant and inspirational to women, and women of color today,” Fillette says, adding that to keep Charlotte’s legacy alive today -- and tomorrow -- requires a call to action.


The community should recognize the room as a resource for inspiration, Fillette adds. “Her legacy should be actively embraced. The campus, as a whole, should be involved. If you teach-- host a class session in the room. If you are having a workshop on topics such as social justice, writing or education-- conduct them in the room. If you are undertaking diversity work or community outreach for college-bound students-- bring them to this room.”


“Charlotte paved the way,” said Salem State President John Keenan, “for each and every student of color who walks on our campus, each student of color who finds a voice, and each student of color who leaves Salem State, to positively impact the future. Her commitment to social justice lives on in all of our students today.”


Charlotte’s legacy shines on through the organization of Bold, Educated, Empowered Sisters (BEES) as well as through scholarships and curriculum. The Charlotte Forten Legacy Room was made possible through a generous donation of the alumni association and the hard work of a passionate committee dedicated to preserving her legacy.