North Carolina's First State Historic Site Honoring its African American Heritage

Charlotte Hawkins Brown, age 35, ca. 1918
Charlotte Hawkins Brown,
age 35, ca. 1918

"I must sing my song. There may be other songs more beautiful than mine, but I must sing the song God gave me to sing, and I must sing it until death."

- Charlotte Hawkins Brown



Founded in 1902 by Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Palmer Memorial Institute transformed the lives of more than 1,000 African American students. Today, restored campus buildings provide the setting for a unique educational experience. The museum links Dr. Brown and Palmer Memorial Institute to the larger themes of African American women, education, and social history, emphasizing the contributions made by African American citizens to education in North Carolina.

A Brief History

Charlotte Hawkins (1883-1961), born in Henderson, North Carolina, was a northern-educated granddaughter of formerly enslaved people. She returned to her home state as a teacher in 1901, and the following year established the Alice Freeman Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia. The African American boarding school evolved from an agricultural and manual training facility to a fully accredited, nationally recognized preparatory school. More than 1,000 students graduated during Brown's 50-year presidency. She died in 1961. Ten years and three administrations later the school closed its doors.

Bennett College purchased the Palmer campus, but in 1980 it sold 40 acres of the main campus with major surviving buildings to the American Muslim Mission. The American Muslim Mission attempted to establish a teacher's college for a short time, but on much of the campus the decay which began in 1971 continued unabated.

In late 1982 Mrs. Maria Cole, a niece of Dr. Brown's, visited friend and schoolmate Marie Gibbs of Greensboro. Together they returned to the campus where both had been students and expressed a joint desire for recognition of Brown's social and educational contributions. Immediately Gibbs and others began sponsoring meetings of Palmer alumni and enlisting support. They met with North Carolina's Division of Archives and History to explore ideas.

State Senator William (Bill) Martin soon joined the cause. He secured passage of a special bill in the 1983 General Assembly which allowed for planning by Archives and History of the state's first African American state historic site. This site would be a memorial to Dr. Brown. Shortly after state planning and research began, citizens organized the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Historical Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit society headed by Gibbs and later by Dr. Harold Webb. In 1985, the foundation and others convinced the legislators to appropriate funds for land acquisition and initial restoration of the Palmer campus. After lengthy negotiations, Archives and History purchased from the American Muslim Mission 40 acres containing the heart of the campus. 

In November 1987, the memorial officially opened as a state historic site. By that time the Carrie M. Stone Teachers' Cottage had been restored as a visitor center featuring exhibits and an audiovisual program. By early 1994, the Historic Sites Section had completed exhaustive, comprehensive research on Brown and the Palmer Institute, and restored or stabilized several other structures. Today, Canary Cottage (Dr. Brown's home) stands furnished and restored and serves as a historic house museum. The remaining dozen or so buildings make up the historic landscape of the school and can be seen from the outside. 

Further Reading

Charlotte Hawkins Brown and Palmer Memorial Institute: What One Young African American Woman Could Do (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999) by Charles W. Wadelington and Richard F. Knapp

The Correct Thing to Do, to Say, to Wear Boston: Christopher Publishing House, 1941. (Currently out of print.) by Charlotte Hawkins Brown

"What One Young African American Woman Could Do: The Story of Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown and the Palmer Memorial Institute." Tar Heel Junior Historian (Fall 1995) by Charles W. Wadelington

"Charlotte Eugenia Hawkins Brown"
in Notable American Women, The Modern Period: A Biographical Dictionary. Harvard University Press, 1980.
by Ruth Ann Stewart

"Charlotte Hawkins Brown" in Notable Black American Women. Gale Research Institute, 1992. by Marsha C. Vick

"Charlotte Hawkins Brown" in Encyclopedia of African American Education. Greenwood Press, 1996. by C. W. Wadelington

Charlotte Hawkins Brown: One Woman's Dream Winston-Salem, N.C.: Bandit Books, 1995 (A "creative biography") by Diane Silcox-Jarrett

Women Builders
Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1931. (Profiles of prominent African American women, including Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Nannie Helen Burroughs) by Sadie Iola Daniel