Charlotte Johnson Dett was born on March 7, 1862, in Drummondville, Canada, now Niagara Falls, Canada. (2) At that time, the Civil War in America had lasted nearly one year and would last another three years. Charlotte's mother, Harriet Washington, had escaped to Canada, probably by way of the Underground Railroad. (3) Either independently or aided by the Underground Railroad, enslaved individuals steadily escaped to Canada, mainly crossing over through Niagara Falls, New York, or Detroit, Michigan. Which city the most fugitive slaves passed through is unknown, but typically they crossed rivers to enter Canada, either the Niagara River through Niagara Falls, or the Detroit River through Detroit.
In 1880, at the age of eighteen, Charlotte married Robert Tue Dett, who was a U.S. citizen. Robert, who was nineteen years older than Charlotte, had not fled to Canada, but rather he visited it through his job as a Pullman railroad porter, or "Red Cap," a person who served the train's passengers. (4) His job allowed him to meet Charlotte. Later, Robert moved from Maryland to settle in Drummondville, Canada. (5) He and Charlotte eventually established a rooming-house business there and had four children: Samuel, Arthur, Harriet, and R. Nathaniel. Of the four, only two--Samuel and R. Nathaniel--would live to adulthood.
In 1889, Arthur and his friends played pranks on some of the merchants in his community, jokingly tampering with some of their property. One merchant who saw his fence being taken down by a group of children rushed into his house, got his shotgun, and fired it at Arthur. Arthur was hit and later died in the hospital. This loss devastated Charlotte, Robert, and the other children. (6) Harriet, the only girl, lived only two years. (7) The Dett family experienced devastating tragedies early on.
In 1893 Charlotte and her family, including her mother, relocated to Niagara Falls, New York. Why the Dett family emigrated is unclear. Perhaps they felt that they could be more economically successful in the United States; maybe Robert longed to be back in America, or perhaps the deaths of two of their children affected their decision. By 1900, Charlotte and Robert Dett had separated, living at different locations. (8) Robert was a hotelkeeper or proprietor, and Charlotte a boarding-house operator. Robert had left the tourist home that he and Charlotte had shared and obtained his own rooming house. Responsibility for raising the surviving children fell upon Charlotte's shoulders. She, her mother, and the children lived on Second Street in Ward One on the south end of town, where trains passed by their back porch. Robert stayed at 333 Main Street, not far from them. (9)
Driven by her outlook and values, Charlotte Dett demonstrated effective leadership throughout her adult life, despite her distressing experiences. No documents written by Charlotte Dett spell out her guiding principles; most written sources discuss her famous son, R. Nathaniel Dett and his musical works. Charlotte Dett epitomized three leadership concepts, combined with a "politics of respectability." First, she lived W....