Let Your Service Fit the Time

Last month I was privileged to portray abolitionist and educator Charlotte Forten at the “In Her Honor” reception to honor the service of women in the Washington DC neighborhoods of Pleasant Plains/Park View. This traditionally black neighborhood in northwest Washington, DC, anchored by Howard University, was home to an orphanage with its roots in the Civil War era. Charlotte Forten was one in a string of remarkable women doctors, social workers and teachers who supported and led the institution to its most recent reincarnation as a community center.

Born in 1837 to a prosperous, educated free black family in Philadelphia, Charlotte Forten was nurtured from an early age in the importance of “racial uplift” –the responsibility of more privileged African Americans to agitate, advocate, teach and sustain the fight for emancipation of their enslaved brothers and sisters. Charlotte herself was denied entry to the segregated Pennsylvania schools, and was privately tutored at home in the classics and poetry. Moving to Massachusetts to earn her teacher’s certificate, she joined the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, raised funds, and spoke in public forums on abolition. She counted the abolitionist publisher William Lloyd Garrison and poet  John Greenleaf Whittier among her circle of friends.

In 1862, during the Civil War, Forten joined the “Port Royal Experiment,” a school set up by the Union Army to bring education and other skills almost 10,000 African Americans on remote St. Helena’s Island off the South Carolina coast. As the first black woman to teach these the destitute, illiterate and abandoned men, women and children, Forten saw her mission as instilling “self-pride, self-respect, and self-sufficiency” in her students. Her journals recording her time there were published in 1864  in The Atlantic Monthly as “Life on the Sea Islands.”

 Her physical frailty and the rigors of life on the isolated island forced Forten to leave her post after 17 months. Later, she worked in Boston for the New EnglandFreedmen's Union.She finally settled in Washington, DC in 1871. There, between 1882 and 1884, she served on the Board of Managers of the National Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children, and again from 1902-1906.The board raised funds and managed several institutions in Washington which provided food, shelter, and education for indigent African Americans. Forten married the Reverend Francis Grimke in 1878; their home was a hub for the social and political leaders of the day, and both continued to write about and speak out against racism and inequality. She died in 1914 at the age of 76.

In the intervening years,  the work of the Association continued and changed according to community needs. In 1930, responding to the desperate poverty and family instability as the economic Depression deepened, the Association purchased a building in Pleasant Plains, expanded the space and established an orphanage called the Meriwether Home (named in honor of the Association president.)  Operation of the orphanage eventually ceased, replaced in the 1970s with the provision of affordable day care services for low-income working mothers in the neighborhood.
 However, by the late 1990s, the building had fallen into disrepair and was abandoned and derelict. Sylvia Robinson, a young activist, saw the building and nurtured a dream to restore its role as a resource for the community. “I realized that what was missing from our communities was a focus on the health and well being of the people and relationships that exist,” she recalls. “I felt that if we could use the arts classes, and social activities as tools that allow people to get to know one another, give them the space and resources to pull their own ideas together, encourage civic participation in their own community, and reach out to the most vulnerable, we could strengthen the community from the bottom up.” 

By amazing circumstance, one of the last Association trustees donated the building to her. With hundreds of hours of volunteer labor from neighbors and friends, the building was rehabilitated and reborn in 2005 as the Emergence Community Arts Collective (ECAC). Sylvia Robinson, who organized the “In Her Honor” event, continues as ECAC’s Executive Director.

I thought of Charlotte Forten’s contributions as I donned an old-fashioned navy and white walking suit, high-top boots, and white gloves to read her words before the hundreds of attendees at the “In Her Honor” reception. I considered how this sheltered, genteel young woman could have enjoyed a life of privilege and ease among the tiny coterie of the black elite. Instead, she recognized and acted on the urgent necessities of the era, taking the appropriate measures to address the needs of her people in that time and place.

The current “Honor” awardees continue the legacy of Charlotte Forten and all of the other women before and after her, who have acted with the same sense of constancy and purpose. The  benevolent organization they founded serves today as an incubator for developing 21s centurysurvival skills. In response to today’s critical issues of climate change and food access, the ECAC property contains 10 raised bed gardens, five rain barrels and two compost bins, all built as part of free community workshops. Community potlucks and bartering provide models of resource sharing. ECAC also hosts the bi-monthly meetings of Ecolocity DC, a grassroots group that is part of the worldwide “Transition” movement for environmentally and economically sustainable societies.

Documenting, preserving, and celebrating the work of the “everyday heroes” among us provides lessons on how all of us can confront challenges, endure, and prevail. One key lesson is that community is central to surviving hard times now and ahead. Another is the necessity to apply our gifts of service to the needs of the time, wherever we are and whatever form our individual expression takes – through words, art, political activism, or producing healthy food to sustain our bodies. These actions are never out of date.
Read more about Charlotte Forten Grimke and other foremothers at http://www.ecacollective.org/emergingwomen/index.html