Charlotte Forten was born to an affluent family in Philadelphia. Her intellectual and politically active parents moved in the same circles as William Lloyd Garrison and John Greenleaf Whittier. She became a teacher and in 1862, during the American Civil War, one of the first northern African-American teachers to go south when she moved to moved to the Sea Islands of South Carolina to teach runaway slaves living there under the protection of the Union Army. She wrote an account of her experience, Life on the Sea Islands, which was published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1864. A few years later, due to ill-health, she left the islands and moved back north. Eventually she settled in Washington, DC, where she lived for the rest of her life. In 1878, she married Francis Grimké, a nephew of the famous Grimké sisters, Sarah Moore Grimké and Angelina Emily Grimké, Quaker educators and writers who were early anti-slavery and women's rights advocates.
Charlotte and Francis had one child, who died young. Today Charlotte Forten is best known for her personal diaries, which were published posthumously in 1953 as The Journal of Charlotte L. Forten. Charlotte’s poety was published in abolitionist periodicals of her day such as The Liberator, and repeated her theme of using education to eradicate oppression.