This is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women Suffrage Movement and an initiative that includes Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that will use the lens of history, the fabric of art and culture, and the venue of the public square to shine a light into dark places, equipping all with a compass to chart the way forward. The initiative lives in the institutional home of Washington Informer Charities.
Mention the name Charlotte Vandine Forten and even scholars are sometimes stumped.
Historian after historian and professor after professor were mystified at the mere mention of her name.
However, a little research reveals that Forten was no ordinary woman. And, at the least, she isn’t someone who should easily be forgotten.
Forten was born in 1886 in Philadelphia and lived for 100 years.
“Charlotte Vandine Forten was the wife of James Forten, who built his fortune through manufacturing sails,” said Dr. April Logan, president of the Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins Society and associate professor and coordinator of Ethnic and Global Literatures at Salisbury University in Maryland.
“In terms of African American history, the Fortens and their five children, as well as their granddaughter, Charlotte L. Forten Grimke, played a significant role in ending slavery as African-American abolitionist leaders,” Logan said. “They were conductors on the Underground Railroad, organizers of the first American biracial anti-slavery society of women, and educators of the formerly enslaved African-Americans after the Civil War.”
According to PBS, the Fortens were one of the most prominent Black families in Philadelphia. James Forten and his wife, Charlotte Vandine, were a wealthy couple with three daughters. They helped to found and finance at least six abolitionist organizations.
The Forten family also used their home to house visiting abolitionists. Charlotte Vandine Forten and her daughters started the Female Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia, the first biracial organization of women abolitionists in the nation, according to PBS.
During national conventions of abolitionists, the Forten family represented the Female Anti-Slavery Society as delegates. One of the Forten’s daughters, Margaretta was a teacher who eventually opened her own school.
Another daughter, Sarah, began composing poems at the age of 17. She also wrote articles for “the Liberator” newspaper, using pseudonyms.
Sarah, like her sister Harriet, married into another family of abolitionists, PBS reported.
“The household of Harriet, and her husband Robert Purvis, became a major haven for abolitionists and fugitive slaves alike,” according to PBS. “In addition to raising her own five children, Harriet also raised her niece, Charlotte Forten (Grimké) following the death of Charlotte’s mother. She also pursued her career as an abolitionist, with her husband’s support. In her later years, Harriet lectured against segregation and for Black suffrage.”
Women demanded suffrage as early as 1848, according to researchers at Wesleyan Univesity.
The Seneca Falls convention in July of 1848 brought together 200 women and 40 men.
The gathering included feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, to make a claim for full citizenship, Wesleyan researchers said.
“The delegates believed women to be citizens not limited in any way to their roles as wives or mothers,” the researchers said. “In the language of the founding fathers, they wrote, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal.’”
The women rejected Victorian domesticity and its separation of women and men into private and public spheres, respectively.
It was at Seneca Falls that the suffrage movement first began, according to PBS.
“I hope this gives you a sense of the important contributions of Black women to women’s suffrage, and the issue of voting rights in general, and the challenges they faced as a double minority – as Americans who were women and African American,” Logan said.