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Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum Canary Cottage undergoes renovations


The sound of hammering and drills have taken over the campus of state historical site, Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum (CHB) and Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, as the Canary Cottage undergoes a few renovations and upgrades.

Renovations began in April of this year, with an estimated completion date of fall 2018. Jamie Jones, CHB museum site manager, said the museum hopes to hold a grand opening tea on the front lawn, similar to the ones Dr. Brown would regularly host at the campus.

The renovation of Canary Cottage has cost about $24,000 with funds from the state.

“We are getting a lot of positive feedback from the community on the renovations. They are happy to see it getting a well-deserved uplift,” said Jones.

Founded in 1902 by Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown, The Palmer Memorial Institute educated more than 1,000 African American students in its 69 year history. To date, it remains the only National Historic registered site in the state to honor an African American and a woman. Known as a pioneer in education, Dr. Brown was also a civil rights activist and suffragist who opened the school when she was just 19 years old.

Born in Henderson, N.C. in 1883, the granddaughter of slaves, Dr. Brown’s family moved to Cambridge, Mass., where she grew up. She moved to Sedalia in 1901 to teach at a small school run by the American Missionary Association (AMA). The school closed down but area residents asked her to stay and continue to educate the children. Dr. Brown agreed to stay and she began a campaign to raise funds for a new school, which became the Palmer Memorial Institute. The institute was named for Alice Freeman Palmer, the second president of Wellesley College, who was Brown’s mentor and first benefactor to the school.

The house Dr. Brown lived in until the day she died was named the Canary Cottage and still exists as the mainstay of the campus. Built in 1926 for her by a few of the school’s benefactors, it has four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and included running water, which was rare for the time period. The house has been refurnished with furniture and household items actually owned by Dr. Brown, including a piano once played by recording artist Nat King Cole.

John Graham with Preservation Greensboro noted that they are partnering with the Winston-Salem Urban League to provide new programming at the museum, with hopes to include an education forum with HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) leaders from across the state.

“Dr. Brown’s goal was to educate African American students during a time when they were denied an education everywhere else,” said Graham. “We want to continue to preserve and educate future generations about her and what she did for the community.”

In its early years, the school and living quarters were housed under one roof. The students slept upstairs in a loft, the teachers slept downstairs, and one large room was used for classes. After a few years, Dr. Brown was able to secure funding to add additional housing to include an all boys dorm and an all girls dorm on opposite ends of the campus. The 200-acre campus also had a farm, where the students could learn agriculture, as well as the Tea House or on-campus store, where students learned how to run and operate a business.

Other subjects taught included math, chemistry, French, African American history and the arts. The school’s choir, The Sedalia Singers, performed all over to help secure funding for the institute.

Parents sent their children from the North and the South, and even as far away as West Africa, to be educated at the Palmer Institute. Jones noted that more than half of the graduates went on to four-year colleges and successful careers. Of those, half went on to professional or graduate schools. Notable alumni include H.M. Mickey Michaux, recently retired state senator from Durham and a 1948 Palmer graduate, and Liz Williamson, a 1933 graduate and a founding member of Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theater, to name a few.

Greensboro Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson, a longtime supporter of the museum, noted that Dr. Brown was a proponent of not just education, but also etiquette. Dr. Brown authored a book in 1941 called The Correct Thing To Do, To Say, To Wear, as a guide in teaching rules of conduct to the students.

“Dr. Brown developed a private, first-class school for African American children. She was an excellent educator and believed in proper etiquette and culture. She was a dynamic human being to have started that school and run it for so long, the way that she did,” said Johnson.

A fire that occurred in 1971 after the school closed, destroyed the building that housed the academic classrooms and chapel. However, many of the facilities are still standing, including the two large dormitories for girls and boys, the dining hall, science building, teachers’ cottages and athletic fields.

The museum also has community spaces that can be booked for public use, such as Kimble Hall, the former dining hall, and the former dormitory. The visitor center is housed in the Carrie M. Stone Teachers’ Cottage, built in 1948, and features exhibits with artifacts, photographs and information on the school and its founder. Jones noted that site managers will give tours if people request a guide, but they encourage visitors to explore the campus on their own.

“We want the community to know that this is your site. We want the community to feel connected to this campus and really feel that they are a part of this history,” said Jones.