March has been dubbed Women’s History Month and I’m honored to spotlight just a few of the women who have made a difference in the day-to-day operation of this country. Some of them are well-known across the land, some are known regionally and some have blazed the trail anonymously, without pomp and circumstance. Although the entire month has been dedicated to their recognition, thirty-one days isn’t nearly enough to mention them all and the strides they made.
Lottie Hawkins, who later changed her name to Charlotte Eugenia Hawkins, was born on June 11, 1883 in Henderson, North Carolina. She lived with her mother Caroline (Carrie) Frances Hawkins and her brother, Mingo not far from where her grandparents had once worked as slaves. She believed that her father, Edmund H. Hight, once lived on the adjacent plantation, but the specifics remain unknown. He wasn’t with the family long after Lottie’s birth. Like many during that time period, her family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts early in Charlotte’s childhood in an effort to escape segregation, discrimination and Jim Crow laws.
Her early education was attained at Allston Grammar School and Cambridge English High School. In 1900, while reading Virgil aloud and pushing the scroller of a neighbor’s child she was babysitting, Charlotte had a chance meeting with Alice Freeman Palmer, who was president of famous Wellesley College. Mrs. Palmer, a pioneer of women’s advancement in her own right and who taught herself to read by the age of four, was highly impressed with Charlotte, made inquires into her academic performance and ultimately provided a strong letter of recommendation to State Normal School of Salem, Massachusetts, where Charlotte ultimately studied teaching. Mrs. Palmer paid her expenses.
In 1901, at the age of 18, Miss Hawkins accepted a job teaching at a school for African-Americans run by the religious American Missionary Association (AMA) in a rural community near McLeansville outside of Greensboro, NC. The school closed at the end of the 1902 spring semester because the AMA decided to put more money into its colleges and training schools. Not deterred by any of this, Miss Hawkins returned to New England that summer to raise money by singing at beach resorts and speaking at churches. Mrs. Palmer, once again proved what a mentor should be by stepping in and assisting. She introduced Miss Hawkins to several wealthy individuals who donated to the school.
Miss Brown’s accomplishments can’t be summed up in a few paragraphs. She was adamant in defining etiquette as a non-racial system available to everyone. She argued that good manners existed as a neutral body of rules and codes of behavior which “white folks have just had more practice in applying.” After years of depending on her good manners and reputation to build networks for the procurement of funds and political influence, Brown’s expertise in the rules of behavior became the center of curriculum at Palmer Memorial Institute, which she founded.
Charlotte Hawkins’ story is one of overcoming discrimination (both sex and racial), determination and perseverance. Although the institute she founded closed in 1971, the road she paved for women as a whole is nothing short of phenomenal. She was a woman who happened to be African-American and one who didn’t allow her skin color, her circumstances or her surrounding derail her dreams and goals serves as inspiration to us all.