Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum

Palmer Institute

February of this year, I featured over 28 museums on various social media sites. My intention was to discover new museums that I never knew existed. I was quite successful on my journey and I wanted to feature one intriguing institution that I stumbled upon, Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum. The museum is at the site of Palmer Memorial Institute, a historically Black boarding school that operated from 1902-1971. The school was co-ed and was open to 1st – 12th grade until the late 1930’s, when it became a high school with a few middle school students.

The school’s founder, Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown (d. 1961) was born in Henderson, NC in 1883 and moved with her family to Cambridge, Massachusetts around the age of 10. She was raised by her mother and step-father and had four siblings. Dr. Brown left Massachusetts at the age of 18 to work for an American Missionary School in Sedalia, NC at Bethany Church. The school closed at the end of her first year and, understanding that no other schools were available to African American students locally, she spent the summer securing the funds for her own school. She founded the school in 1902 and it was named for Alice Freeman Palmer, who funded Dr. Brown’s college education.

Many prominent individuals attended Palmer, including: Dr. Brown’s Niece, Maria Hawkins Cole (’38), singer for Duke Ellington’s Orchestra and wife to Nat King Cole; Mike Evans, who played Lionel Jefferson on “The Jeffersons” and co-created “Good Times;” Liz Williamson (’33), a founding member of Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theater; and Walter Booker, Jr. (’52), bassist for Sarah Vaughan. Prominent associates of Dr. Brown included Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Dubois, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary McLeod Bethune, James Weldon Johnson, and Oscar DePriest. All of these individuals visited the campus.

One of the most interesting relationships Dr. Brown had was with Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune. Dr. Brown and Dr. Bethune worked together in the women’s club and interracial cooperation movements by the 1910’s. Dr. Bethune supported Palmer, particularly in times of trouble. (For example, when the girl’s dormitory burned down, Dr. Bethune stepped up to help with fundraising efforts.) They enjoyed a life-long friendship and mutual commitment to bettering the lives of African American women.

The parallels with the history of both of these women opening schools is fascinating. Dr. Brown was also a suffragist and was active in organizations committed to social justice and civil rights. She was a prolific, nationally known speaker on issues of education, labor rights, women’s rights, rights for African Americans, and the “social graces.” Causes supported by Dr. Brown included voting rights, desegregation, labor rights for African American women, efforts to raise the minimum wage, and efforts to end lynching and police brutality. The museum was founded in 1987 and currently it is operated by the State of North Carolina. It explores the life of Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown and the history of Palmer Memorial Institute.

Admission to the museum is free. The museum is open from 9 am – 5 pm Tuesday – Saturday, except state holidays. Additional information can be found here:

*Information & photo derived from the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum staff

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