Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum staff continue her legacy

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GIBSONVILLE, N.C. — Less than two decades before starting a private school based on a new model of education, Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown was born in Henderson, North Carolina, to descendants of slaves. Today, she is credited with providing thousands of African Americans the tools they needed to succeed in a world where they may not have otherwise. The grounds where she accomplished this are closer than many are aware and memorialized in the form of a museum in her honor. 

“Having the chance to get to talk about this powerhouse of a woman every day is really unique,” says Sonya Laney, Education Coordinator at the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum. 

Born in 1883, Brown and her family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1888. There, Brown flourished as a student and met educator Alice Freeman Palmer, who went on to help fund Brown’s higher education. Palmer also introduced Brown to members of Boston’s society, which would prove invaluable in Brown’s next endeavor.  

“When she moved south, she was coming from an integrated public-school situation, into a segregated public-school situation,” says Leslie Leonard, Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum assistant site manager.  

In 1901, Brown returned to North Carolina, with the desire of helping African Americans obtain an education. At age 19, Brown was able to form the Palmer Memorial Institute in a blacksmith’s cabin. After raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from people in both North Carolina and Massachusetts, the campus grew to include 200 acres, adding buildings and producing students who would go on to change the course of their lives and the lives of countless others. 

“She was also very involved, in addition to running a school, she was also heavily involved in advocacy work,” adds Lacey Wilson, the museum’s site manager.  

Wilson, Leonard and Laney, all graduates of UNC Greensboro’s museum studies master’s program, are what the university calls the “small but mighty staff” of what became the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum, after the North Carolina General Assembly appropriated funds to purchase the site of the Palmer Memorial Institute and its 14 buildings in 1983.  

Four years later, the museum became a North Carolina State Historic Site, and today, it remains the only state historic site focusing on African American history, and the only one honoring a woman, according to UNCG.  

“Obviously, there were things happening at this school that are just kind of beyond our current understanding,” Laney says.  

Today, the trio of UNCG graduates are tasked with continuing Brown’s mission, by providing tours and information to visitors, both in-person and virtually.  

“You never known what particular part of the story is gonna catch someone’s attention and make them want to talk with you more,” Wilson says.  

“It’s almost a call to action,” Leonard adds, of visitors after touring the campus. “They leave with this just incredible feeling of inspiration and they want to go and be some sort of catalyst in their own community.” 

The UNCG alumni also organize educational events and maintain the archives of the Palmer Memorial Institute, which ultimately closed its doors in 1971. Some alumni of the school still come back to see the museum.  

“They’re grown adults, but when they’re back on campus it’s like high schoolers again,” Laney details. “Meeting an alumni feels like meeting a celebrity. It’s like fangirling over them.” 

Leonard says her favorite item at the museum is a piano in Dr. Brown’s home. Brown’s niece, Ms. Maria Hawkins, married famed musician Nat King Cole. The couple would frequent the institute, with Cole playing the piano in Brown’s home. 

“Something about being able to go in there and dust that piano – even though I have white gloves on and I’m not really touching it – to be able to be that close to something that was a piece of Mr. Nat King Cole is pretty amazing,” Leonard says.  

All three employees say there are lessons we can look to in 2021, especially coming out of a tumultuous year such as 2020.  

“She was very vocal about her beliefs and I think that’s something we can take to heart today,” Leonard says. 

“We should not underestimate the power of an individual,” Laney adds. 

“Looking at grassroots efforts, and connections, and commonalities,” says Wilson “There’s a lot we can learn and a lot that we can take forward in 2021.” 

For more information on how to tour the museum, click here.  

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