She was born Charlotte Makgomo Mannya in Ramokgopa in the Pietersburg (now Polokwane) District on April 7 1874. She received a missionary education at Edwards Memorial School in the Eastern Cape in the early 1880s. In 1885, after the discovery of diamonds, Maxeke moved to Kimberley with her family. While in Kimberley, she became a teacher.
As a dedicated churchgoer, Maxeke and her sister, Katie joined the African Jubilee Choir in 1891, and toured England for two years. During this tour, Maxeke performed for Queen Victoria, allegedly in Victorian costume. With hopes of pursuing an education, Maxeke went on a second tour to the United States of America (USA) with her church choir in the early 1890s. When the tour collapsed, Maxeke stayed in the USA and studied at Wilberforce University in Cleveland, Ohio. The University was controlled by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC). At the university, she was taught under Pan-Africanist, W.E.B Du Bois, and received an education that was focused on developing her as a future missionary in Africa.
Charlotte Maxeke graduated with a B.Sc. degree from Wilberforce University, where she also met her husband, Marshall Maxeke, who had come to the university in 1896. They were engaged when they both returned to South Africa in 1901, Maxeke as one of South Africa's first Black woman graduates.
Maxeke was greatly influenced by AMEC and through her connections with the Ethiopian Church the AMEC was founded in South Africa. She became the organiser of the Women’s Mite Missionary Society in Johannesburg, and then moved to the Pietersburg (now Polokwane). Here she joined her family in Dwaars River, under Chief Ramakgopa, who gave her money to start a school. However, the school could not be completed, due to lack of government funding and the poverty of the local community.
After this, Maxeke and her husband established a school at Evaton on the Witwatersrand. The Maxekes went on to teach and evangelise in other places, including Thembuland in the Transkei under King Sabata Dalindyebo. It was here that Maxeke participated in the king’s court, a privilege unheard of for a woman. However, they finally settled in Johannesburg, where they became involved in political movements.
Charlotte Maxeke and her husband attended the launch of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC- now the ANC) in Bloemfontein in 1912, and although her main concerns were church-linked social issues, Charlotte also wrote in Xhosa on the social and political situation occupied by women. In Umteteli wa Bantu, she addressed the ‘woman question'. As an early opponent of passes for Black women, Charlotte Maxeke was politically active throughout her adult life. She helped organise the anti-pass movement in Bloemfontein in 1913 and founded the Bantu Women’s League of the SANNC in 1918 (now the ANCWL).
As leader of this organisation, she led a delegation to Prime Minister Louis Botha to discuss the issue of passes for women. This this was followed up by a protest the following year. Charlotte Maxeke was also involved in protests on the Witwatersrand about low wages and participated in the formation of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) in 1920.
Charlotte Maxeke was also involved in multiracial movements. She addressed the Women’s Reform Club in Pretoria, which was an organisation for the voting rights of women, and joined the Joint Council of Europeans and Bantus. Maxeke was also elected as president of the Women’s Missionary Society.
In 1928, she attended a conference in the USA and became increasingly concerned about the welfare of Africans. She set up an employment agency for Africans in Johannesburg and was the first Black woman to become a parole officer for juvenile delinquents. Charlotte Maxeke was often honoured as ‘Mother of Black Freedom in South Africa’, and had an ANC nursery school named after her in Tanzania. Maxeke died in Johannesburg in 1939 at the age of 65.