Pforzheimer Fellow Digitizes Charlotte Hawkins Brown Papers

Charlotte Hawkins Brown, ca. 1913-1933. Photo by Butler Studios NY, courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryCharlotte Hawkins Brown, ca. 1913-1933. Photo by Butler Studios NY, courtesy of Schlesinger Library

The papers of Charlotte Hawkins Brown (1883–1961), an educator who transformed a one-room schoolhouse into an accredited junior college, are now available to a wider audience because of work done by a Pforzheimer Fellow at the Schlesinger Library during the summer of 2014.

Bradley Lynn Craig ’13, who is working on his PhD in African and African American studies in Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, worked with the Schlesinger’s experimental archives team to digitize the Brown collection, which was previously available only on microfilm. During his two-month fellowship at the library, he says, he learned “about the time, energy, and attention to detail that go into preparing a collection for viewing. And I learned about a remarkable woman.”

The Harvard Library launched the Pforzheimer Fellows program last summer to offer humanities graduate students in-depth experience with the work that libraries do today. Robert Darnton, the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian, proposed the fellowships, which honor Carl H. Pforzheimer III, a generous contributor to the University. Libraries from six Harvard divisions—the Harvard Archives, Harvard Business School, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Graduate School of Design, Harvard Law School, and the Radcliffe Institute—proposed 10 projects for which graduate students were invited to apply. The selection committee chose four projects to which Pforzheimer Fellows contributed.

At the Schlesinger, Bradley Craig worked with Marilyn Dunn, the executive director of the library. He used a Hover-cam—which combines the technologies of a digital camera and a scanner—to digitize the Brown collection.

The collection contains biographical material, including an unpublished biography, writing, and speeches; personal correspondence; and information about the junior college Brown founded.

The granddaughter of former slaves, Brown was born in North Carolina and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, when she was five. During her senior year at English High School, she met Alice Freeman Palmer, a former president of Wellesley College. Palmer urged Brown to attend the State Normal School at Salem and provided financial assistance.

After a year in college, Brown accepted a teaching job at a one-room school in rural North Carolina. That was the school she eventually transformed—with the help of many supporters—into an accredited junior college. She renamed the school the Alice Freeman Palmer Memorial Institute (PMI) in honor of her benefactor.

PMI, located in Sedalia, North Carolina, near Greensboro, became a school for upper-class African Americans. Brown raised money for it from Boston-area philanthropists, who formed a “Sedalia Club.” By 1916 the campus contained four buildings.

More than a thousand students attended the school from 1902 to 1970, when it closed. Brown became a nationally recognized educator and received honorary doctorates from Howard, Tuskegee, and other universities. She was the first black woman to serve on the national board of the Young Women’s Christian Association. She died of heart failure in Greensboro in 1961.

Today the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum is housed in the buildings of the Palmer Memorial Institute. The museum links Brown and the school she founded to larger themes in African American history.

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