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The Inspiring Writing of Charlotte Forten Grimke and The Power of Classical Education

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

Carol Nelson | September 8, 2023

African American author, poet & inspiration
Charlotte Forten Grimke


Encountering people who are champions of their day, despite suffering, is always encouraging. It's also important to consider how these people became champions. Who were the people and what were the factors that made them such a light during their generation? Charlotte Forten Grimké, a distinguished African American writer, poet, and civil rights activist from the 19th century, is one such luminary.

Charlotte Forten Grimké's Life Story

Her remarkable life story not only shines a light on her own unwavering determination but also reflects the dedication of her parents, who fiercely advocated for her classical education at a time when many African Americans were denied a simple education. Her story, and her example underscores the vital role of parents and educators in challenging injustice, embracing truth, and providing children with an education that reflects key values in a hostile world.

She is often remembered with these words, which are excerpted from the Journal of Charlotte Forten, 1953: May those whose holy task it is,

To guide impulsive youth,

Fail not to cherish in their souls

A reverence for truth;

For teachings which the lips impart

Must have their source within the heart."


Charlotte's story is a testament to the notion that education is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor and that it alone cannot transform society into one where compassion, social justice, and truth prevail.


Charlotte Forten Grimké cultivated a voice that broke barriers - her works and the poem above have endured, despite the fact that she faced significant limitations in terms of public engagement and professional pursuits. Her activism, was all the more remarkable in a society that frequently marginalized voices of all but the upper class. Nevertheless, her identity was not solely defined by these challenges. Instead, it was her family that played a pivotal role in shaping her values and convictions in a society steeped in oppressive norms and practices. Her unwavering commitment to justice and equality enabled her to overcome these hurdles and leave a lasting impact.

The Life and Legacy of Charlotte Forten Grimké

Born in 1837 into an abolitionist family in Philadelphia, Charlotte Forten Grimké was a trailblazer in her own right. As a young woman, she received a unique and exceptional education, an anomaly for an African American in her era. Her parents, acutely aware of the transformative power of education, chose to homeschool her and provide her with a classical education deeply rooted in the trivium.

What is Classical Education?

The Bedrock of Classical Education involves teaching students to critically think, and to express their ideas persuasively and cogently. The basic premise for this approach is understood in terms of the classical trivium model:

  1. Grammar: During the grammar stage, children lay the groundwork for language proficiency, vocabulary mastery, and grammatical precision. For Charlotte, this foundation meant developing a profound understanding of language and a keen appreciation for the nuances of words—an invaluable skill that would underpin eloquent writing and a strong commitment to truth.

  2. Logic: The logic stage imparts critical thinking skills and the art of constructing coherent, reasoned arguments. This phase honed Charlotte's analytical abilities, enabling her to dissect complex societal issues and ardently advocate for civil rights.

  3. Rhetoric: Rhetoric, the art of persuasive communication, was a cornerstone of Charlotte's education. Armed with this skill, she became a formidable voice in the abolitionist movement, using her writing prowess to influence public opinion and champion social change.

Compassion in Education:

A Vital Component Charlotte Forten Grimké's education extended beyond skill building or just acquiring knowledge. It wasn't just a model, it was a model that was enlivened and enabled by her parents. You might say that her education was was deeply rooted in the compassion and love of a stable and strong family. Her parents, who were also her educators, recognized the significance of nurturing her gifts and skills, and fostering a supportive environment that allowed her to flourish.

Today's parents and educators can learn from Grimke's legacy. Strong families and strong educational models help us to encourage students to stand strong in the face of adversity. Encouraging students to express themselves in healthy ways and think through the problems of their day, may help them to contribute towards more compassionate communities, and, like Grimke, address the problems in compelling and culturally relevant ways.


The life and legacy of Charlotte Forten Grimké stands as a testament to the transformative power of classical education, compassionate guidance, and the belief that truth matters. Her narrative emphasizes the importance of acknowledging that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to education, and that the best educational outcomes include compassion. Her words still serve as a poignant reminder that education is simply a tool which can help children to find their own unique voice, and guide them away from impulsivity towards truth and compassion. In so doing, we can help our children not just endure a hostile world; but also to make amazing and inspirational choices that influence others towards what is good, and true, and right.

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