Saturday, October 24, 2009

Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown

I, for one, am proud to be present on the eve of truly understanding what Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1776, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Those words defined our future, even though it may not have been realized at the time. Just this year, we Americans have declared ourselves truly one people. As a native North Carolinian, I am proud to say that my home state, as North Carolina has so often been such a leader in the past, is a leader again in that official recognition.

On 12 April 2007, the General Assembly of North Carolina issued "Joint Resolution on Slavery" in the 2007 Session, a ratified bill, Resolution 2007-21, Senate Joint Resolution 1557. Section 3 of that resolution reiterates Jefferson's words, "The General Assembly calls on all North Carolinians to recommit their State, their communities, and themselves to the proclamation of their nation's Declaration of Independence and their State Constitution that 'all persons are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights' – to work daily to treat all persons with abiding respect for their humanity and to eliminate racial prejudices, injustices, and discrimination from our society."

"Juneteenth" recognizes June 19, 1865, when the last enslaved Africans in the US were freed some two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
In the spirit of "S.RES.198: US House and Senate Apology for Slavery, 19 June 2009," the United States official apology for the atrocities committed in the name of monetary considerations, I would like to honor a North Carolina African-American example of leadership who contributed to this accomplishment, a fellow human being who understood that human considerations should come before any measure of economic profit.


Charlotte Hawkins Brown was born in 1883 to descendants of slaves in Henderson, NC. In 1888 her family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Boston, to escape "Jim Crow" practices of the South and for better social, economic, and educational opportunities. Young Brown was an excellent student, and by chance she met and was mentored by educator Alice Freeman Palmer, for whom the Palmer Memorial Institute was named.

Palmer Memorial Institute, located east of Greensboro, began in 1902 as a rural African American school. It was a unique private school, for more than 60 years. Dr. Charlotte Hawkin Brown was its founder and a leader of the institute for 50 years.

Dr. Brown aired this speech on March 10, 1940 on CBS Radio:

"I have chosen to speak to you this morning on a subject which is very near to my soul, "The Negro and the Social Graces." By social graces I do not mean an attitude of cheap servility, assumed for the purpose of currying favor. I mean simply doing the courteous thing and making a pleasing appearance—the practice of everyday good manners so generally lacking nowadays in the conduct of the average young person, regardless of race.

My message for the most part is to that group of young Negroes from high schools and colleges whose education is above the average; for unfortunately many of these are inclined to associate all forms of politeness, fine manners, and social graces with the slavery-time performances of the maid and the butler, and to discard anything which they feel might have come out of those days in which their ancestors were slaves. They forget that even in those days many Negroes were schooled in the "correct thing," and that "what they were not taught, they caught," in the way of social demeanor.

One needs only to read any book, fiction or fact, associated with the life of Negroes in the households previous to 1865 to see that it was the Negro butler and maid who actually taught the social graces to the children of the aristocracy of the Southern white group; everything from learning how to curtsy to the art of walking with charm and grace across the ballroom floor. The canons of the social graces were learned by those slaves or servants as religiously as their masters learned the catechism.

Fortunate also are those whose parents, immediately after the Civil War, came under the wise and gentle tutelage of the flower of the white race that came from the North and Middle West, built private schools, became their instructors, and were their patterns for intellectual, moral, and social behavior. They taught our mothers and grandmothers the dignity of self-reverence and self-restraint. They taught our fathers—through example and precept—the proper attitude toward their women and what was expected of them in the new freedom which was theirs. These cultured Christian men and women gave to the students of that day "Open Sesame" to the best culture that the world knew.

It is perfectly natural that we want to forget much that was associated with slavery and its aftermath; at the same time it is very necessary that we pay attention to some of the things gained by our foreparents through intimate association with an aristocracy schooled in the finer things of life. Well may we add to our modern culture and educational efficiency some of the fine manners of those bygone days.

After all, the success of the American Negro depends upon his contacts with other races who, through the years, have had greater advantages of learning the proper approach to life and its problems. The little courtesies, the gentle voice, correct grooming, a knowledge of when to sit, when to stand; how to open and close a door; the correct attitude toward persons in authority; good manners in public places, such as railroad stations, moving picture houses, and other places where we are constantly under observation—the acquisition of these graces will go a long way in securing that recognition of ability needed to cope with human society, and will remove some of the commonest objections to our presence in large numbers.

Alas, in our day good manners for both races are almost outmoded. In many instances we have lost the art of fine living. The Negro, with all his handicaps, has now the opportunity of his life to develop anew the art of fine manners as one of the means by which he may climb the ladder of success. The white race, having reached such heights of culture in their civilization, oft times feel that they can afford to go back to earlier stages of barbarism, to sweatshirt grooming, to hilarious party and dance performances. Unfortunately many of our Negro youth are wont to follow this as a proper way of life. But in order for the Negro to get even half the recognition which he may deserve, he must be even more gracious than others, more cultured, more considerate, more observant of little courtesies and social finesse if he would gain a decent place in the sun.

Let us take time, therefore, to be gracious, to be thoughtful, to be kind, using the social graces as one means of turning the wheels of progress with greater velocity on the upward road to equal opportunity and justice for all."

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