Born Charlotte Eugenia Hawkins in Henderson, North Carolina, in the late 1880s her family moved north to settle in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An exceptional student in a very white world, during her senior year of high school, Alice Freeman Palmer, a former Wellesley College president, provided financial support to enable her to further her education at the State Normal School in Salem.
In 1901 Charlotte Hawkins accepted a teaching position in a one-room school in the rural community of Sedalia, North Carolina. In 1911 she married fellow teacher Edward S. Brown, but the marriage did not last.
Her dedication to educating young African Americans led to the tiny school evolving to become an accredited school and junior college, renamed the Palmer Memorial Institute in honor of her benefactor. In 1915, the prominent Boston financier and philanthropist Galen L. Stone learned of her work and became the Institute's most important benefactor.
Charlotte Hawkins Brown devoted her life to the improvement of the African American community's social standing and was active in the National Council of Negro Women.
Among her numerous institutional efforts, she served on the national board of the Young Women's Christian Association, the first black woman to do so.
In 1952 Brown retired as president of Palmer Memorial Institute. She died at Greensboro, North Carolina in 1961 from heart problems, aged 77.