The following article appeared in Tar Heel Junior Historian 39 (spring 2000), 15–17.
by Lydia Charles Hoffman*
Lottie Hawkins (1883–1961) spent her early years in the farming community of Henderson, North Carolina. She lived in a comfortable four-column house with her mother, Caroline “Carrie” Frances Hawkins, and her brother, Mingo. Vance County was home for many members of the Hawkins family. They worked as carpenters and masons and in other skilled occupations that allowed them to work outside the sharecropping system, which kept many African Americans impoverished after the Civil War. Their wage income enabled them to purchase small plots of land and build houses for their families. Lottie’s mother worked hard to create a home environment where her daughter and her son would become self-confident and well educated and aspire to live beyond the constraints of discrimination and segregation found at that time in the South. She taught her children how to read and to appreciate oration, art, and music.
Although the Hawkins family fared better than many other African American families in turn-of-the-century North Carolina, Carrie and others in her extended family decided to move to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1889. One year later Carrie married Nelson Willis and opened a boardinghouse, where young Lottie, now seven, helped her mother to sew, wash, and iron for the Harvard University students who rented rooms. Dr. Brown later recalled listening to the conversations and debates of these young scholars, which strengthened her resolve to attend college.
Lottie’s home training and intellectual environment provided her with a strong foundation that helped her in her studies at Cambridge’s prestigious English High School. During her senior year, young Hawkins decided to change her name from Lottie to Charlotte Eugenia, a more dignified name, she thought. During her years in Cambridge, Charlotte earned a reputation as a determined, intelligent student and community leader. She organized the kindergarten at her church, coordinated the Cambridge High School Association’s events at the Harvard Square Grand Hall, and received praise from both faculty and fellow students for her high marks, oral presentations, and beautifully crafted watercolors. A chance meeting and Charlotte’s accomplishments brought her to the attention of Alice Freeman Palmer, the president of Wellesley College. Palmer sponsored Charlotte’s entrance into Salem’s State Normal School, where she studied to become a teacher.
Charlotte’s family in Henderson provided her with models of self-reliance and self-sufficiency, which she applied to her own life. A few months before Charlotte graduated from the teacher’s college, the American Missionary Association (a Christian organization founded to help educate blacks in the South after the Civil War) offered her a teaching position in a rural school outside Greensboro.
Arriving in Sedalia in 1901, Charlotte Hawkins knew that North Carolina’s rules for social interaction between whites and blacks would be different from those of New England. But she was confident that her manner and education would help her to deal with the prejudices she would encounter. However, she was not prepared for the condition of the school: a dilapidated building, ill-prepared students, and a community desperate for a leader to teach its children. Over the years, Charlotte served not only as a teacher but also as a community organizer who helped her neighbors to get medical attention, child care, and bank loans to buy property.
One year after her arrival, the American Missionary Association withdrew its funds from the Sedalia school. Determined to keep her educational program afloat, Charlotte returned to New England to raise funds to open the Alice Freeman Palmer Memorial Institute, named after her friend and benefactor. Hawkins returned to North Carolina with $200 and in the fall of 1902 hired four other women to help her teach classes in academic fundamentals, domestic science, and agriculture.
Charlotte Hawkins Brown (center) and the faculty of Palmer Memorial Institute, ca. 1907.
Palmer was the only school in the area where many African American boys and girls could receive an education. Most walked long distances along unpaved roads to sit on coarsely cut log benches in the converted blacksmith’s shed that served as the one-room schoolhouse. During the winter months, Charlotte arranged for some of her male students to live in a shack not far from the school so they could continue their education when cold weather set in. Many of the female students boarded with Miss Hawkins and the other female teachers on the second floor of the schoolhouse. Students who could not afford tuition or room and board could take part in work programs, which not only helped to maintain the school but also enhanced industrial skills. Even as the student body became more prosperous, daily chores remained part of the curriculum. Hawkins insisted that each student have assigned daily tasks, in order to instill a sense of individual accountability for keeping the community running smoothly.
Charlotte Hawkins Brown (Miss Hawkins married Edward Brown in 1911) enlisted the local community to help her to expand and improve her school. Sedalia’s Bethany Congregational Church donated fifteen acres of land to the project. However, Brown knew that a blacksmith’s shed and a small parcel of land would not create the living and learning academy she envisioned. Funds for a trained staff and equipment were essential to maintaining an accredited high school. Dr. Brown wanted to offer the best educational opportunities for her students: laboratories, encyclopedias, modern facilities, and reproductions of classical paintings and sculptures to view in the library.
To accomplish her goal, Dr. Brown again turned to her northern friends. In speech after speech at New England summer resorts and Boston churches, she told of her plan to build an academic institution in the South “for the betterment of her race.” Her hard work and determination also brought the attention of North Carolina educational leaders Charles McIver and Frank Porter Graham to Palmer’s program and to the need for improved educational opportunities for the state’s black students.
The campus of Palmer Memorial Institute, ca. 1915. The large structure in the center is Memorial Hall. To the left is the Domestic Science Cottage; to the right are Grew Hall (a dormitory) and the Industrial Building.
From 1902 until her death in 1961, Charlotte Hawkins Brown built Palmer into one of the premier boarding schools for African Americans in the United States. She followed the example of her mother in creating an environment where children and adolescents could live and learn to become self-reliant and well educated. By the time Palmer’s doors closed in 1971 (a fire destroyed the main campus building), more than a thousand students had graduated and gone on to colleges and universities across the nation. Many became community leaders themselves, including North Carolina state representative Mickey Michaux of Durham. Dr. Brown’s accomplishments earned her praise from notable women and men such as Mary McLeod Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt, and W. E. B. DuBois. As the founder of the Palmer Memorial Institute, Dr. Brown left a legacy as an educator of African American children that holds a prominent place in our state’s and nation’s history.
*Lydia Charles Hoffman [was at the time of publication] the site manager of the Charlotte Hawkins Brown State Historic Site in Sedalia. She wrote her master’s thesis on Charlotte Hawkins Brown at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Struggle for Equality
Although Charlotte Hawkins Brown maintained that there was just “one standard of character for white and black alike,” she was painfully aware of the legal and social restrictions that denied African Americans their civil rights. She stood in the forefront of the struggle for political, economic, and social equality.
- Brown strongly supported the Nineteenth Amendment, which recognized women’s suffrage in 1920. As president of the North Carolina State Federation of Negro Women’s Clubs, she devised strategies for black women to register to vote safely.
- When personally stung by discrimination, Brown fought back. Forced to leave a sleeping car on an overnight train, she sued the Pullman Company—and won.
- A popular speaker, Brown frequently spoke out against the discrimination leveled against African Americans, especially women.
"I repeat, no white woman has ever been called on to bear what the Negro woman has borne, for added to the struggle of womanhood of the white race to gain recognition in affairs of state in America, the Negro woman has had the handicap of color, prejudice, unjust discrimination and lack of respect for her personality."
—Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Madison Square Garden, New York, ca. 1942
Charlotte Hawkins Brown Web Sites
Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum
North Carolina Historic Sites offers this extensive biography of Brown and a history of the Palmer Memorial Institute.
America on the Move: Charlotte Hawkins Brown
This site from the Smithsonian Institution offers a brief biography of Brown, plus a photo of a cast figure that represents Brown in a Smithsonian exhibition.
The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow: Charlotte Hawkins Brown
PBS offers a brief biography of Brown plus photos and a video.
The following article appeared in Tar Heel Junior Historian 39 (spring 2000), 30–33.
Henry Frye made a significant mark on North Carolina history on September 7, 1999, when he took the oath of office as the first African American chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. In 1983 he became the first African American appointed as an associate justice to the court. Chief Justice Frye also made history in 1968, when he became the first African American elected to the North Carolina legislature in the twentieth century. The Tar Heel Junior Historian Association is honored that Chief Justice Frye agreed to an interview for this issue of Tar Heel Junior Historian magazine. He is indeed a notable part of history and has achieved “legendary” status in the eyes of many North Carolinians. For insight into this living legend, see the interview below.
THJHA: Chief Justice Frye, could you give us some background on your childhood?
Frye: I was born in Ellerbe, Richmond County, on August 1, 1932, to Walter A. and Pearl (Motley) Frye (both deceased).
THJHA: When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
THJHA: What effect did your rural upbringing have on your life?
THJHA: How were relations between blacks and whites when you were a child and a young adult?
Frye: Relations with blacks and whites were generally good on the job and during the workweek. We went our separate ways on the weekends. We also went to separate schools, and the white students had newer books and better school buses.
THJHA: Could you tell us about the schools you attended?
Frye: I attended the same school from first through twelfth grade. It was known then as Ellerbe Colored High School. However, my diploma reads “Ellerbe High School.” After graduation, I attended what was then A&T College, now North Carolina A&T State University. In those days, white students interested in studying agriculture could attend State College in Raleigh, while black students attended A&T College in Greensboro. At A&T, I started as an agricultural science major, then changed to a biology major with a double minor in chemistry and air science.
THJHA: When and why did you join the Air Force? How long were you enlisted? What did serving in the military teach you?
Frye: I was an Air Force ROTC cadet and received a commission as second lieutenant in the United States Air Force Reserve upon graduation from college. I was called to active duty in the air force in December 1953, serving in San Antonio, Texas; Denver, Colorado; Suwon, South Korea; and Fukuoka, Japan. I served in the air force from 1953 to 1955. I returned to the United States in December 1955 and visited Disneyland in California before returning to North Carolina. I worked at a chemical laboratory in Brooklyn, New York, in 1956, returning to North Carolina in August to get married and to attend law school at the University of North Carolina.
THJHA: What action did you take after not being allowed to vote in Richmond County in 1956?
Frye: When I tried to register to vote in my hometown of Ellerbe, I was told that I did not pass the literacy test, which was required in order to vote. This seemed strange to me, that a person could be an honors graduate of a North Carolina college, an officer in the United States Air Force, and be accepted to the UNC Law School but couldn’t pass a literacy test for voting. Others agreed. When I returned to vote after talking with the chairman of the board of elections, I passed the test with ease.
When I was elected to the legislature, my first bill was to have a constitutional amendment to abolish the literacy test.
THJHA: Tell us about your family.
Frye: My wife is Shirley Taylor Frye. She has a successful career of her own. We have been happily married for over forty-three years. We have two children, Henry Eric and Harlan Elbert. I also have three lovely grandchildren.
THJHA: What are your hobbies or interests? List any community activities in which you participate.
Frye: I like playing golf and bowling, as well as writing poetry. I am a deacon at Providence Baptist Church in Greensboro.
THJHA: What is the makeup of the supreme court? When does a case appear before the court?
Frye: The makeup of the court is as follows: there are six associate justices and one chief justice. Currently, four of the justices are Republicans, and the other three are Democrats.
There are three main ways that a case appears before the supreme court. If there is a dissenting opinion in the state court of appeals, the losing party has a right to an appeal to the supreme court. Second, a party may petition this court for discretionary review of a unanimous decision of the court of appeals. Finally, all cases in which the defendant is sentenced to death, and Utilities Commission general rate cases, may be automatically appealed to this court.
THJHA: How is being chief justice different from being an associate justice?
Frye: Being chief justice involves many additional administrative responsibilities. These responsibilities vary greatly, from heading various committees and commissions to assisting the Administrative Office of the Courts in its key role of managing the court system throughout North Carolina.
THJHA: When you look back over your life, what one moment stands out foremost in your mind, the moment of which you’re most proud?
Frye: I’ve had a lot of great experiences, but two of the best were speaking at my son Harlan’s graduation from Grimsley High School [in Greensboro] and administering the oath of office to my son Henry Jr. as an elected superior court judge.
THJHA: What was the best advice that you ever received or that has stayed with you throughout your life? Do you have any advice for the students who are reading this magazine?
Frye: My high school principal, Mr. S. B. T. Easterling, told me that winners never quit, and quitters never win. He also told me to make every occasion a great one, for I would never know whether fate had chosen my name for a higher place. I have never forgotten this advice.
My advice for young people is to study and make good grades in school. Learn to get along with people. Develop good study habits. Dream about what you want to do and to be, then go to work to make your dreams come true. Listen to people who have failed, and try not to make the same mistakes those people made. Listen to people who have succeeded, and follow their advice.
THJHA: What would you say to a young person who may be having doubts about achieving certain goals in life?
Frye: To a young person who may be having doubts about achieving certain goals in life, never doubt your ability to succeed. With determination, dedication, and a positive attitude, you can achieve your goals and lead a prosperous life.
Henry Frye Web Sites
Chief Justice Henry E. Frye
A photograph and brief biography of Frye
Frye Creates a Living Legacy of Justice
An article with photographs on Frye and links to related stories from Raleigh’s WRAL.