Charlotte Forten – African-American Teacher on Gallows Hill

The observation this week of ML King Day brought out several recollections of Charlotte Forten, the first African-American graduate in 1856 of Salem Normal School, the 19th century predecessor of what is now Salem State University. Her remarkable career was long and worthy – 1st African-American schoolteacher in Massachusetts, abolition activist, writer and diarist and poet, educator of recently freed slaves on the Sea Islands in South Carolina in the Reconstruction Period.

Her connections to Salem are many and varied. There’s even a web site solely devoted to Charlotte Forten in Salem. Check it out for details of her life, which is going to become even more newsworthy with the upcoming dedication of the new Charlotte Forten Hall at the SSU library. Charlotte FortenBut what’s drawn attention of the Streets of Gallows Hill to Charlotte Forten is that her first teaching position in Salem upon graduation from Salem Normal School was on Gallows Hill, at the Epes School on what is now Aborn Street Court a few steps from the Salem / Peabody city line (then the Salem / South Danvers city line, the Peabody name not assumed until 1868).

In the classification of the times Epes was both a Second Division grammar school (older children aged 10-14) as well as a First Division primary school (younger children aged 6-10). In the Salem Directory of 1858 Salem had seven grammar schools and seven primary schools, with several schools like Epes fulfilling both categories. The Epes school serviced what are now the Mack Park and Gallows Hill neighborhoods, anything below North St and above Bridge St. It is not recorded in the Salem Directory of the time which division Charlotte Forten taught. Likely both. She was at Epes for two years until 1858 before resigning to recover from a bout of tuberculosis, though she did return subsequently to Salem to teach briefly at the Higginson Grammar School then on Broad St. Unheard of for the times, she instructed white children NOT black children. There might have been too few black children in Salem at the time to even assemble an all black classroom.

It seems that the Epes School is still standing. On Aborn St Ct there is one building, now an four-unit apartment building, that has the characteristics of a mid-19th century school. It would have been a four-room schoolhouse, two up and two down, classrooms placed back to back, and sits on a large property big enough to have once been a schoolyard. 7 Aborn St CtThough cannot find proof in the form of mid-19th century images of the Epes School, property records have the building constructed in 1841, consonant with it having been a mid-19th century schoolhouse. And the style and size of the building are in line with another grammar school of the period, the Fowler School on Fowler St nearby,

13 Fowler St

itself born a four room schoolhouse and now a four unit condo after an early 20th-century conversion from school to apartment building.

Maps of the time support the argument. In the 1874 Atlas of Salem no Epes School nor Aborn St Ct is indicated, though there is a building of appropriate dimensions where Aborn St Ct would be.

Epes School anyhow would have by 1874 been replaced a new and larger school up Boston St shaded green in the 1874 map and circled green in the current Google map. For comparison’s sake the area of the Fowler School from the 1874 Atlas is also provided. Fowler St 1874As a bonus, the nearby Charles Lenox Remond residence at 9 Dean Street, where Charlotte Forten resided with the abolitionist Remond family while teaching at the Epes School, is also marked. Dean St is now Flint St, the home sited in a condominium parking lot, the grander Bowditch School converted to condos, like the Epes and Fowler schools before it.