Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown and the Palmer Memorial Institute
Palmer Memorial Institute (PMI), located east of Greensboro, began in 1902 as a rural African American school and succeeded as a unique private school, for more than 60 years. Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown was its founder and leader for 50 of those years.
She was born in Henderson in 1883 to descendants of enslaved people. In 1888 her family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Boston, to escape Jim Crow and Segregationist practices of the South and for better social, economic, and educational opportunities. Though one of few Black students in Cambridge's schools, young Brown was an excellent student. One day in high school she had a chance encounter with educator Alice Freeman Palmer, who became her mentor.
Palmer was so impressed by Brown's diligence at pursuing an advanced education that she helped sponsor Brown's schooling. She also introduced Brown to many important people in Boston, society people she would later approach to help with her school.
The Beginning of a Dream
After a year of junior college, Brown accepted a 25-dollar-a-month job from the American Missionary Association (AMA) and returned to her home state of North Carolina to teach poor, rural Black students.
She arrived at a one room school at the Bethany Community Church in Sedalia in 1901. Her desire to help southern African Americans drove her to begin repairing the school, but unfortunately the AMA decided to close it. Though now jobless, Brown was encouraged by her students and their parents to start her own school.
After securing money and encouragement from her friends in the North, she moved the school across the street to a blacksmith's shed. Brown soon raised enough money to build a campus with more than 200 acres and two new buildings. After hiring a small staff and garnering the additional support of local Black and White leaders, Palmer Memorial Institute (Palmer) began operations.
Among other attributes, the school offered Black students an unusual opportunity for cultural learning. Its goal was to be a facility where Black students could escape the then common assumption that African Americans were innately inferior to whites and did not need any schooling beyond vocational training.
In 1900 North Carolina had more than 2,000 privately operated schools for African Americans. Most teachers had only an elementary school education so could instruct their students only up to that level.
Over the years Palmer would evolve from agricultural and vocational training to college preparatory education. Classes after that transition included drama, music, art, math, literature, and romance languages. Students were divided into small circle groups with teachers who served as counselors and advisers. Each student received personal training in character development and appearance. Additionally, all students had to work one hour per day for the school as service learning.
Troubles and Victories
By 1915 Palmer had gained support from national figures such as educational leader Booker T. Washington, Harvard University president Charles William Eliot, and Boston philanthropists Carrie and Galen Stone.
After a major fire destroyed two of six main buildings in 1917, Brown's determination to raise enough money to offset the loss prevented the school's closing. This successful effort also encouraged increased interracial (both black and white) support for Palmer.
The Stones, white northerners, became Palmer's largest donors. They were the first significant donors to support the school because of its holistic approach to total education and its quality liberal arts programs.
Renewed interracial support and increased contributions from across the nation helped fund Palmer's first major brick building and a new status as the only accredited rural high school (for African American or white students) in Guilford County. When another key building burned in 1922, a financially stronger and more community-oriented Palmer continued normal operations.
In the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s Dr. Brown geared the school to provide a liberal arts education for its students. Experiential education (or hands-on learning) was also a major tenant of education at Palmer. By the end of the 1940s Palmer had gained a reputation as the premier boarding school for the Black middle class, attracting students from as far as Bermuda, Kenya, and Panama.
A Holistic Education to Uplift the Individual
Dr. Brown was not the only Black woman educator creating schools and excelling during her lifetime. Two Black women contemporaries who would become close friends of hers were Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune and Nannie Helen Burroughs. Together, these three women were known as the "Three Bs of Education." The Three Bs believed in combining a holistic triangle of ideas and lessons to achieve racial equality: Brown's triangle combined education, religion, and deeds; Bethune's triangle was "the head, the heart, and the hand"; Burroughs's was "the book, the Bible, and the broom." By the mid-1920s Brown was a nationally known speaker who stressed teaching these concepts through culture and liberal arts for racial uplift.
Despite the on-set on the Great Depression, Palmer continued to expand and established a junior college where students could earn an associates degree and a new boy's dormitory was built.
In 1937 Palmer closed the elementary and junior college departments and after Dr. Brown and local activists convinced Guilford County to open the county's first public rural school for Black students. She became known as the "first lady of social graces" after appearing on national radio and publishing the book The Correct Thing to Do, to Say, to Wear in 1940. In the mid-1940s Brown raised $100,000 for an endowment, and Ebony magazine published a feature article on prestigious Palmer which can be seen in our Visitor's Center today!
In 1952 Brown retired after 50 years. She handpicked Wilhelmina M. Crosson of Boston to succeed her as Palmer's next president. Following a long illness, Brown died in 1961 and was buried with great honor on the campus she loved.
The school's legacy lives on through generations of students and graduates who have been influenced by Palmer's philosophy: "Educate the individual to live in the greater world." They have become known around the globe as writers and singers, teachers and professors, doctors and lawyers, actors and actresses, scientists and mathematicians, and government officials. Their children and grandchildren, known as Palmer Heirs, are also part of Dr. Brown and Palmer's legacy.
Wilhelmina M. Crosson (1900-1991) was the second president of Palmer Memorial Institute. Born in Warrenton, NC she moved with her parents to Boston, Massachusetts, in 1906, where she became an excellent student and was a star player on her school's basketball team.
As a teacher, Ms. Crosson observed how her mostly Italian immigrant students learned. Instead of their reading curriculum being determined solely by their grade level, Wilhelmina began tailoring her reading instruction to each students ability. This led to her establishing the first remedial reading program in 1935. The success of this teaching style in helping her students became a model that Ms. Crosson helped other teachers establish in their schools. Eventually, Wilhelmina opened the first Remedial Center at the Paul Revere School. In 1938 she was named one of the 48 best teachers in Boston.
Outside of the classroom, Ms. Crosson continued working to promote the study of Black History through founding the Aristo Club of Boston. This group was comprised of Black professional who worked to raise money to send local Black students to college, and helped establish the celebration of “Negro History Week” within the Boston Public School System. Members of the club also taught Black history courses to adults at the Twelfth Baptist Church on Saturdays.
Wilhelmina wanted to start her journey as an educator at Palmer, but was turned down by Dr. Brown until 1948. She joined the Palmer faculty as a history and English teacher, quickly becoming a favorite of Dr. Brown's. In 1952 when Dr. Brown made the decision to step down as president, she asked Wilhelmina to take her place. While initially reluctant to step in, Ms. Crosson excelled at the job. One program she established was an exchange program with the Millbrook School in New York, an all-white boarding school at the time.