As an African American diarist in antebellum and post-bellum America, Charlotte Forten was a privileged individual by birth and endowment. Born 17 August 1838 in Philadelphia, Forten was a toddler when her famous grandfather died. James Forten, Sr., who had been a powder-boy during the American Revolution and a former student of Anthony Benezet, the Quaker abolitionist, was an ingenious man who amassed a fortune by inventing and patenting a practical sailing device. Because of his brilliant mind and rebellious spirit, he was a leading abolitionist among free Negroes in Philadelphia. Robert Forten, his son and Charlotte's father, an antislavery lecturer, hired private tutors to instruct his daughter at home before she moved to Salem, Massachusetts, in protest of Philadelphia's strictly segregated schools. Her aunts, Margaretta, Sarah, and Harriet, were active socially and politically in the women's rights and antislavery movements. Harriet Forten, Charlotte's favorite aunt, was married to Robert Purvis, an original signer of the American Anti-Slavery Society charter and later the president of that organization.
A product of this environment of revolutionary fervor and commitment, Charlotte Forten was immersed in the spirited politics of renewal. Her own sufferings, however, personalized her involvement in the campaign to end slavery and racism. She may well have been an aristocratic member of the Forten clan, but her status was no protection from the discrimination that she experienced as a person of color connected irremediably to a subjugated group of people. Her journals reveal her anguish and pain as she and her friends were barred from ice cream parlors in Philadelphia and museums in Boston. Indeed, even her white classmates from the “liberal” Higginson Grammar School were capable of ostracizing her at their convenience. She confides to her diary, “I have met girls in the schoolroom—they have been thoroughly kind and cordial to me—perhaps the next day met them in the street—they feared to recognize me; these I can but regard now with scorn and contempt”. Charlotte Forten was a victim of a psychic conflict of identity: she was both a blue blood and a member of an oppressed minority at the mercy of a racialized society and its racist whims.
Forten's diaries were written over a period of thirty-eight years from 1854 to 1892, time enough for her and her society to change. The journals capture these changes. There are five diaries, and each one permits Charlotte Forten to develop a new image of herself. The first diary is written from 24 May 1854 to 31 December 1856, when Charlotte Forten is a brooding teenager attending antislavery rallies in Boston, Framingham, and Salem. Written from 1 January 1857 to 27 January 1858, diary 2 mirrors the transformation of Charlotte Forten, a young adult, into an abolitionist snob. After receiving a caller who had failed to embrace the doctrine of radical abolitionism, she writes of him, “intelligent on some subjects—ignorant of true [radical] anti-slavery. I soon wearied of him.” Journal 3 is the core of the diaries, for it is here that a twenty-four-year-old Charlotte Forten (upon John Greenleaf Whittier's advice) applies for a commission to travel like a soldier to South Carolina as a New England schoolmarm to teach contraband slaves and nurse Union soldiers during the Civil War. This diary covers five years, 28 January 1858 to 14 February 1863. Two of the most important events recorded here are her involvement in the Port Royal Social Experiment and her eyewitness account of the official reading of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation statement to South Carolina slaves and black soldiers. Charlotte Forten left Philadelphia for the Sea Islands on 22 October 1862; excluding a two-month northern vacation, she stayed on the coast for approximately seventeen months. She taught at the Penn School, under the supervision of its founder, Laura Towne, and her assistant Ellen Murray, both New Englanders.