NORTH ANDOVER — When history is explained, the main actors are usually nations, armies and those who lead them.
But as practiced by Kabria Baumgartner, a Newburyport resident and the Dean’s Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies at Northeastern University, history is found in the intimate elements of personal relationships.
An example of this approach will be provided by her talk on “Black Women of Essex County—Charlotte Forten and Sarah Remond,” at the North Andover Historical Society this Thursday, March 10 from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. The talk is free but those planning to attend should register at www.northandoverhistoricalsociety.org.
Forten and Remond were 19th century activists who fought against racial discrimination for their right to be educated, and to educate others. They crossed paths in Salem, Massachusetts, in the early 1850s, when Forten roomed with members of Remond’s family while she went to school.
“I’m interested in their friendship,” Baumgartner said. “They were not the same age, but they weren’t too far apart. Charlotte was able to befriend Sarah.”
Baumgartner enjoys “imagining the kinds of conversations they may have shared about education,” which for Remond included some especially difficult memories.
“Sarah had this very difficult, terrible experience within the Salem Public Schools,” Baumgartner said. “She was expelled from the East School for Girls because she was Black, an incident that stayed with her and bothered her.”
After moving with her family to Newport, Rhode Island, where she was able to attend school, Remond eventually moved back to Salem in the early 1840s.
“It was at the moment of reemergence of an equal school rights struggle,” Baumgartner said. “African American residents in Salem petitioned for the racial integration of Salem schools.”
As Baumgartner explained in her award-winning book, “In Pursuit of Knowledge,” Salem’s public schools were integrated before white citizens petitioned to have them segregated in 1835. Baumgartner writes that those white residents may have been motivated by the fact that an African American, Remond, was the star of her class.
But African American residents lobbied for desegregation and submitted their own successful petition in 1844, which restored their educational rights and allowed Forten to enroll in the city’s schools.
“Charlotte kept a diary of her time in Salem, and that diary has been transcribed by historians, and that diary has a couple of moments where Charlotte mentions her conversations with Sarah,” Baumgartner said. “My talk is really going to delve into those conversations, those interactions.”
The two women shared a commitment to equality and education, and Forten’s admiration for her older friend reveals a great deal about how Forten understood the world in which she lived.
“I’m very interested in thinking about how Charlotte regarded Sarah,” Baumgartner said.
“She uses different kinds of adjectives to describe Sarah. Sarah was someone Charlotte wanted to emulate. They were friends, but there was also a slight mentorship that Sarah provided to Charlotte.”