Civic Life

The Civic Life of Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown

Dr. Brown circa 1938
  Dr. Brown, circa 1938

"I believe that the end of all education is to teach one to live completely." - Charlotte Hawkins Brown

Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown —the granddaughter of a slave— was born on June 11, 1883 in the rural community of Henderson, North Carolina. In 1888 Lottie, together with nineteen members of her family, left by boat from Norfolk, Virginia to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The family included Lottie's mother (Caroline Frances); her grandmother, Rebecca; her younger brother, Mingo; her stepfather, Willis; and numerous uncles, aunts, and cousins.

The first recorded evidence of Lottie Hawkins's civic and/or community involvement appeared in 1895. Lottie was then only 12 years of age. She attended Sunday school regularly in the New England community of Cambridge. It was here that she exhibited her first known indications of leadership. Seeing a need for a kindergarten department at her church, Lottie took it upon herself to organize it.

In 1897, at age 14, Lottie was chosen orator for her minister's fifteenth anniversary. The governor of Massachusetts and some members of his advisory council were present and were very impressed with the abilities of the young Lottie Hawkins. In reaction to Lottie's presentation, "round after round of applause was accorded her," and one member of the advisory council remarked: "I expect to hear from that girl in the future."

From 1897 to 1900 Lottie Hawkins's civic life was concerned largely with education pursuits. Shortly before graduation from the Cambridge English High and Latin School in 1900, Lottie changed her name to Charlotte Eugenia Hawkins (this name change was largely for professional reasons).

From 1901 to 1909, Miss Hawkins's civic affairs were primarily restricted to the rural community of Sedalia, North Carolina. Here Charlotte had accepted a teaching position offered to her by the American Missionary Association (AMA). Unfortunately, the AMA school was forced to close its doors after only one year of operation. The civic-minded Hawkins, however, persevered. With encouragement from the Sedalia community and the support of Northern friends, Charlotte began the difficult process of founding, developing, and operating a school of learning for the local rural African American youth of the area.

Yet Miss Hawkins's efforts were by no means limited to the establishment, construction, and operation of Palmer Memorial Institute. Charlotte also took an active civic role in the development of Sedalia's community and church affairs. It must be noted that Charlotte's civic involvement was not limited to African Americans living in Sedalia and surrounding communities. She also enlisted the aid and support of liberal-minded whites, which resulted in an increased understanding between the races. For this and other contributions toward racial understanding, Dr. Brown would be rewarded in future years.

In 1909, Miss Hawkins would become one of the organizers and founders of the North Carolina State Federation of Negro Women's Clubs. This national organization of progressive twentieth-century African American women sought the membership of entire clubs, instead of individuals. Among its membership were civic, religious, and social groups. The organization was developed primarily for the betterment of Negro womanhood.

In 1915, Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown became the North Carolina Federation's second president. Dr. Brown would remain in that office for 21 years. This was the longest tenure of any of the Federation's presidents to date. The most outstanding program undertaken by the group while Dr. Brown was in office was the purchase and maintenance of the Efland Home for Wayward Girls. The Efland Home was located in Orange County near the town of Mebane, North Carolina. Though inadequate, with concern to its needs, the facility was the only one of its kind in the State, and as such was a "Godsend."

When Dr. Brown came to Sedalia in 1901, only two families owned their farms. By 1930, 95 percent of the families were independent farmers and home owners. This effort was largely successful through the Home Ownership Association, an organization founded by Dr. Brown. Also, in 1930, Brown was elected one of 150 delegates to represent the Council of Congregational Churches of America in Bournemouth, England.

Four years later in 1934, in addition to the development and success of the Home Ownership Association of Sedalia, Dr. Brown fostered a movement for "urban-farm" living. This was a movement fashioned after the "Fruitlands" project of Amos Bronson Alcott. Alcott's experiment was a farm in the town of Harvard, located in northern Massachusetts. The inhabitants lived on the fruits and vegetables produced from their own labor. With this in mind, Dr. Brown sought the interest of business and professional men who preferred rural living, but worked in nearby cities. Although the Sedalia experiment was short-lived, the movement served to attract more people to buy their own homes and farms in the Sedalia community—thus increasing the overall income of the residents of the community.

In recognition of Brown's many civic and community services, she received honorary Master of Arts degrees from three educational institutions between 1917 and 1936. In addition, from 1937 to 1958, Dr. Brown received honorary doctoral degrees from four universities. During this same period, between 1935 and 1937, Brown served two terms as president of the North Carolina Teachers Association. This organization is now known as the North Carolina Association of Educators. While in office as the president of the North Carolina Federation of Negro Women's Clubs, from 1935 to 1937, Dr. Brown pursued three primary objectives: (1) the upgrading of North Carolina's educational facilities, (2) a higher level of communication between the State of North Carolina and African American teachers, and (3) instilling in members of the Negro teaching profession a high sense of racial pride.

In 1938, the civic, educational, and community services of Dr. Brown were rewarded once again by Wilberforce University of Xenia, Ohio, which conferred upon her the LL.D. degree.

In 1943, after enduring many years of hardships to maintain the Efland Home for Wayward Girls, Dr. Brown appeared before the North Carolina Legislature to request funds from the state government to support and maintain the needed institution. Later that year, the North Carolina General Assembly appropriated $50,000 for the establishment of a new facility for the training of unfortunate Negro girls.

To celebrate the funding of the new home for the training of wayward Negro girls, Governor Melvin Broughton and Dr. Brown spoke at the formal opening of the State Training School for Girls on November 12, 1944. The Girls' Home was first established in Rocky Mount as the State Training School for Negro Girls but its official name was soon changed to Dobbs School for Girls in July 1947, after the school was moved to Kinston, North Carolina.

Late in 1944, Dr. Brown was honored by Howard University with an honorary degree in Education. This highly prized tribute was only one of many honors that Dr. Brown would receive for her civic contributions. In 1947, Brown was honored with an award for racial understanding by the Council of Fair Play, a group of outstanding Northerners and Southerners concerned with better racial understanding. The council stated that Brown "laid a foundation that has served to encourage the acceptance of today's changes in old patterns." Among the large number of civic projects that were accomplished with the assistance of Dr. Brown were the organization of a Girls' and Young Adults' Division of the Federation of Negro Women's Clubs in 1948, the development of the Scholarship Fund for College Students from 1956 to date, and the publication of the Negro Braille Magazine in 1952.

In 1956, Dr. Brown was made honorary president of the North Carolina Federation of Negro Women's Clubs. The year 1958 brought Dr. Brown honors from the prestigious Tuskegee Institute of Alabama, which conferred upon her a doctoral degree in Literature.

In total, Dr. Brown received the following honorary degrees from American institutions for her civic contributions in education, literature, and human socialization.

Master's Degrees

  • Cheyney Normal and Industrial Institute; Cheyney, Pennsylvania.
  • Livingstone College; Salisbury, North Carolina.
  • North Carolina Central University; Durham, North Carolina.

Honorary Doctorates

  • Lincoln University; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (LL.D., 1937).
  • Wilberforce University; Xenia, Ohio (LL.D., 1938).
  • Howard University; Washington, D.C. (Ph.D. Ed., 1944).
  • Tuskegee Institute; Tuskegee, Alabama (Ph.D. Lit., 1958).

Dr. Charlotte Eugenia Hawkins Brown died on January 11, 1961, while under treatment at the L. Richardson Memorial Hospital in Greensboro, North Carolina. Dr. Mordecai Johnson delivered her eulogy at Wellesley Chapel on the campus of Palmer Memorial Institute. Dr. Johnson, in his summation of the value of the civic services rendered by Dr. Brown, viewed her "as contributing to the development of the whole individual . . . . She admonished them with the value of competent leadership . . . [for] only as you become such leaders, will the spirit of Charlotte Hawkins Brown live throughout generations to come."*


Adapted from The Civic Life of Dr. Charlotte Eugenia Hawkins Brown: 1895-1961," by Charles W. Wadelington. (Unpublished report, North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 1984. Revised 1990).