Nineteen-year old Charlotte Hawkins Brown, an African American educator, started the Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina in 1902 to educate elementary and high school students in rural North Carolina. Named after Brown’s benefactor and friend, Alice Freedman Palmer, the Institute began in an old blacksmith shed.
From its inception, the Institute promoted industrial and academic education. The Institute included a farm, which provided agricultural training and provided a means by which students could work to pay for tuition. In the elementary curriculum, Brown taught spelling, drawing and hygiene and also traditional courses such as arithmetic, reading and drawing. Students in the upper grades learned history, geography, literature, and grammar.
To receive financial assistance from whites, Brown incorporated their suggestions while keeping the school under her control. One of her major donors, Frances Guthrie advised Brown to focus on basic living skills and deemphasize academics and industrial education. She emphasized teachings of morality and religion by incorporating them in the curricula. To keep control over the Institute, she formed a local board of African American trustees in 1904 and also established a local board of northern white supporters.
In 1922, the Institute became fully accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. With her entrepreneurial skills, she developed the Institution into the only finishing school of its caliber in the United States. During her tenure, the campus included more than 300 acres and fourteen buildings. The Institute also included an accredited junior-college program that began in the mid-1920s. However, by the late-1920s, Brown abandoned the idea of a junior college and focused the Institution exclusively on college preparatory. By the end of the 1950s, the Institution enrolled over 200 students.
The Institute prepared students for future academic study, and graduates generated an impressive track record of academic performance. Approximately 90 percent of graduates attended college, and more than half pursued postgraduate degrees and 64 percent of them continued went on for postgraduate work.
By the time of her death in 1961, Brown had received six honorary degrees for her educational labors among African American children. After her death, the Institution was without its creator and figurehead and experienced financial setbacks. Budgetary problems were caused integration in part because private education costs increased and desegregation laws allowed blacks to attend formerly white-only public schools. A 1971 fire destroyed the administration and classroom building, and the trustees were forced to close the school.
The Palmer Institute reopened in 1987 as the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Memorial State Historic site. It is the only state historic site dedicated to the achievements of an African American and the accomplishments of a woman.
Jeffrey J. Crow, Paul D. Escott, Flora J. Hatley, A History of African Americans in North Carolina (Raleigh, 1997); William Powell, Encyclopedia of North Carolina (Chapel Hill 2006); Charles Weldon Wadelington, Richard F. Knapp, Charlotte Hawkins Brown & Palmer Memorial Institute: What One Young African American Woman Could Do and Palmer Memorial Institute (Chapel Hill, 1999).