Charlotte Forten Valedictory Poem, Salem 1856

The Farewell Exercises of the State Normal School in Salem, later Salem State College, provided an opportunity for many of the graduates to reflect on their time at the school. When giving the Valedictory Poem on July 28th, 1856, Charlotte Forten used the public forum to talk about slavery. Forten, the first African-American graduate from the State Normal School, came from the prominent Philadelphia Forten family. While in Salem, Charlotte Forten was an active member of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society and frequently socialized with prominent abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Philips. 

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Monday Morning, July 28


The following is the Poem, written and read by 
Miss CHARLOTTE L. Forten, on the occasion of
the Farewell Exercises of the Second Graduating
Class of the State Normal School in Salem, on
Tuesday afternoon, July 22, as mentioned in the
Register of Thursday;

Lightly the feet of Summer press our earth;
Bright are her smiles, her songs are full of mirth.
The sweet and gladsome music of her voice
Saith to each sad and weary heart “rejoice”–
And words of calm rebuke she speaketh low
To those who cause the weariness and woe;
The selfish, who for wealth and power seek,
And use  them oft to wrong and crush the weak.
But they heed not her earnest, warning word;
The voice of Nature is by them unheard.
They see no beauty in the waving trees,
Danned by the soft and balmy summer breeze.
The solemn music of the starry spheres
Falls not upon their dull, unwilling ears.
They toil for riches, or to make a name,
Forgetting that the true glory’s not the fame
Which the world freely gives to those who, still,
To win its smiles, submit to its will.
Less deep and strong becomes their sense of right
By the too-tempting consciousness of might.

Can motives such as these prompt gen’rous deeds,
To lessen and relieve Humanity’s great needs?
No, naught of good for others can be done,
Till actions spring from principle alone.
In life uphold, is love of God and man.
But selfish motives grow, and, spreading far,
Infect the press, the pulpit and bar.–
E’ev in the Nation’s councils, we but see
Of Right and Justice the vain mockery.

They boast of Freedom in this land of ours;
Yet every breeze that comes from the Southern bow’rs,
Laden with the rich fragrance of bright flow’rs,
Brings us the captive’s cry of deep despair,
His bitter moan, his agonizing prayer.
That beautiful South-land– is freedom there?
Is perfect freedom here, in our own North?
Too few there are who rightly know its worth,
While any can be found who basely kneel,
E’en while the Southron’s haughty pow’r they feel,
While he shall dare insult, attack and slay
The noble few who scorn his brutal sway.

Still have we much to hope for — rays of light
Illume for us the dark and dreary night;
The few, who nobly toil for Right and Truth,
Toil not in vain; within the heart of youth
Their seed is sown, and it shall yet give birth
To harvests rich, and gladden all our earth.
We, knowing well the need of larger bands
Of more true, earnest hearts, and willing hands,
Have sought to strengthen mind, and hand, and heart,
That we, in the great work, may do our part;
That, through our influence, the dew of truth
May fall on the unfolding flower of youth.
While we, with eager footsteps, gladly roam
O’er the wide realms where Aciencfe has her home,
And lead the young and curious on, to tread
The paths o’er which her glorious light is shed–
While, with her treasures rich, we seek to store
The youthful mind, which ever craveth more–
We will remember there are higher claims,
And strive to teach with these far holier aims:–
That love of all mankind, which ever tends
To strengthen life’s most earnest, noblest ends;
That firm and true adherence to the right,
A lamp, which burns with strong and steady light,
And ‘mid the storm’s dark clouds, its fiercest wrath.
Will guide the bearer safe in duty’s path.

While seeking strength these labors to perform,
With minds attentive and with feelings warm,
Within these halls how often we have met,
And listed to the tones we’ll ne’er forget–
The loved and earnest tones of those who’ve sought to aid and strengthen us whom they have taught;
Whose faithful teachings have not failed to give
An impulse, which shall last us while we live.
Most happy we have been in this calm life,
Disturbed not by a single sound of strife;–
Peace, gentle peace has blessed our little world;
Her snow-white banner o’er it is unfurled.

But now we leave it for the conflict stern,
Which waits for all who would true glory earn.
Now must our band be broken, now we part;
And, as we say farewell, the tears will start;
For memory calls up the happy past,
And tells of pleasant hours, too bright to last.
And well we know, that, in this world of pain,
But few who part may ever meet again.
Companions, teachers, our sad tones will tell,
That, with sad hearts, we speak our last farewell.

But we have pledged ourselves to ernest toil;
For others; good to till, enrich the soil;
Until the abundant harvest it shall yield,
We must be ceaseless laborers in the field.
And, if the pledge be kept, if our good faith
Remain unbroken till we sleep in death,–
Once more we’ll meet, and form in that bright land
Where partings are unknown– a joyous land.


Charlotte Forten, “Valedictory Poem,” Salem Register, (July 28, 1856). Salem State Archives, Salem, MA.