Grimké, Archibald H. 1849–1930
Archibald H. Grimké 1849–1930
Lawyer, writer, activist, diplomat
Archibald H. Grimké was one of the most influential black activists and intellectuals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Bom into slavery, the son of a prominent southern planter and a slave of mixed racial ancestry, he rose to become a crusading editor, author, and diplomat and a tireless leader in the battle against racism and racial discrimination.
In the early 1880s, Grimké served as editor of the Hub, a Republican-sponsored newspaper dedicated to the welfare of black people in the Boston area. In addition to bringing him into the city’s political arena, where he gained prominence among Boston’s integrated elite, the position provided him with a visible and highly effective forum with which to explore the issues of racial injustice and oppression in post-Reconstruction America.
Grimké later served as U.S. consul to Santo Domingo, and in 1904, he was named president of the American Negro Academy, a Washington, D.C.-based organization formed to bring together the country’s leading black intellectuals. He remained there for 15 years, publishing scores of articles and pamphlets on the importance of equality for blacks, women, and other minorities. Although his ideals became increasingly radical as time went on, he remained staunchly independent in his ideology, refusing to take sides in the bitter philosophical dispute that divided his more famous contemporaries, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B.Du Bois.
Following the election of President Woodrow Wilson in 1912, federal segregation became a critical issue for black Americans, especially in the capital city of Washington, D.C. In early 1914, Grimké, then deeply involved in local efforts to combat racial discrimination, was named president of the Washington branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) . Within months, he was testifying before Congress against bills calling for the segregation of black employees in government service. When the United States entered World War I, he spoke out against the practice of sending black men to fight and die for a country that denied black citizens their fundamental rights, and he spearheaded efforts to ensure that black soldiers received fair and equal treatment by the government.
During Grimké’s 11 years as president of the Washington chapter of the NAACP , he helped to turn it into one of the most powerful and cohesive branches in the nation. In recognition of his distinguished service, the organization awarded him its prestigious Spingarn Medal in 1919. In
Born Archibald Henry Grimké August 17, 1849, near Charleston, SC; son of Henry Grimké (a lawyer and planter) and Nancy Weston (a slave); married Sarah Stanley, 1879 (marriage dissolved, 1883); children: Angelina Weld Grimké. Education: Lincoln University, B.A (with honors), 1870, M.A., 1872; Harvard University, L.L.B., 1874.
Practiced law in Boston, 1875-83; editor of the Hub, 1883-85; president, Women’s Suffrage Association of Massachusetts, beginning in 1885; special writer for Boston-area newspapers and magazines, 1891-92; American consul to Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic), 1894-98; writer, lecturer, and president of the American Negro Academy, 1904-19; president, Washington chapter of the NAACP, 1914-25. Author of biographies of William Lloyd Garrison, 1891, Charles Sumner, 1892, and Tlmaque (Denmark) Vesey, 1901, for the Funk & Wagnalls “American Reformer” series; also author of numerous essays and speeches, including “The Ballotless Victim of One-Party Government,” 1913, “The Ultimate Criminal,” 1915, and “The Shame of America or, The Negro’s Case Against the Republic,” 1924.
Member: Authors’ Club, London; American Social Science Association; Emmeline Cushing Estate (trustee); Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association (president).
Awards: Spingarn Medal, National Association for the Adavancement of Colored People, 1919.
addition to writing dozens of essays, articles, and speeches, Grimké produced critically acclaimed biographies of the well-known abolitionists and activists William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, and Télémaque (Denmark) Vesey.
“As both an activist and an intellectual … [Grimké] became a notable figure during the tumultuous period of American race relations following Reconstruction and for the next half century,” wrote Dickson D. Bruce, Jr., in Archibald Grimké: Portrait of a Black Independent. “Throughout his career, his advice and friendship were widely sought by other leaders, white and black, in the battle against racism and racial discrimination.”
Archibald H. Grimké was born on a plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, in 1849. His father, Henry Grimké, was a successful lawyer who had abandoned his professional career to become a planter. His mother was Nancy Weston, a family slave who had served as a nurse for Henry Grimké’s first wife, Selina, and their three children. Following Selina’s death in 1843, Nancy and Henry had three sons, with whom their father maintained a distant yet affectionate relationship. Archibald was the eldest. When Henry Grimké died in 1852, the plantation was sold at auction.
Ownership of Nancy and her three sons, whom the senior Grimké did not consider slaves yet could not, under South Carolina law, set free, passed to Montague Grimké, his eldest son with Selina. Henry Grimké’s second family was given a quasi-free status and relocated to Charleston, where they shared a house with Montague and two of his sisters. After a short time, Nancy Weston was able to sell some livestock and purchase a small cottage of her own.
For the next eight years the family scraped by on her meager earnings from taking in washing and ironing, and the boys attended a special school for the children of Charleston’s free black citizens. Although Nancy herself could not read or write, she placed a tremendous value on formal education, and she played an active role in her sons’ schooling. Hour after hour, she listened to their recitations. “Like Frederick Douglass with the Columbian Orator, Archie learned from books of speeches, called ’Speakers,’ given heavily to patriotic themes and thus to the doctrines of freedom and liberty which were so contrary to the orthodoxies of the slave South,” Bruce related. “In retrospect, he gave those speeches much credit for his own intellectual emancipation from slave society.”
Although Grimké’s mother did everything she could to distance her sons from the institution of slavery, white Charleston was a hostile place for Grimké and his brothers, and as the Civil War approached, racial tensions mounted. By 1860, the southern states had seceded from the Union, and many free blacks were reenslaved. Montague Grimké took advantage of the repressive atmosphere by demanding that Archibald return to the Grimké home as a house servant. The arrangement did not last long, however. Unwilling to take orders from his half-brother or tolerate mistreatment, Grimké fled.
Soon thereafter, the Union army captured the city, and Grimké signed on as an officer’s boy for a company of Yankee soldiers. Around the same time, the military seized control of Charleston’s schools, and all black children were given the right to receive a public education. Grimké, then 12, and his younger brother, Francis, enrolled in a school directed by Frances Pillsbury, the wife of Gilbert Pillsbury, Charleston’s Reconstruction mayor and a well-known abolitionist.
Impressed by the boys’ superior academic ability, Pillsbury urged them to go north to pursue a college education. She also arranged interviews for them with the president of Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania, and found sponsors to pay their way. They spent a year in the university’s preparatory department before beginning their college-level coursework in the fall of 1867. Grimké finished his undergraduate studies in three years and went on to complete a master’s degree in 1872.
Not long after Grimké had begun his college work at Lincoln, one of his professors, Edwin R. Bower, wrote an article for the Boston Commonwealth in which he reflected on the academic excellence of a number of his black students. His aim in writing was to disprove the then-popular theory of black inferiority. In the article, titled “Negroes and the Higher Studies,” Bower made special mention of a student “by the name of Grimkie who came here two years ago, just out of slavery,” Bruce recalled in Archibald Grimké. The piece was later reprinted in an issue of the Anti-Slavery Standard.
In February of 1868, Bower’s article fell into the hands of Angelina and Sarah Grimké, two of Henry Grimké’s sisters. Years before, they had moved north to become leaders in the antislavery movement. Intrigued by the similarity of this Grimkie’s name to her own—the newspaper had in fact misspelled it—Angelina wrote Grimké a letter at Lincoln, inquiring about his possible connection to her brother and providing information about herself and her work as an abolitionist. Grimké fired off a long letter in reply, describing his upbringing in Charleston, his reenslavement by Montague Grimké during the Civil War, and the generosity of Frances Pillsbury and her husband, which had made it possible for him and his brother to come north for an education.
Devastated by the news of her family’s willing participation in the cruel and unjust system of slavery, Angelina vowed to publicly acknowledge Archibald, Francis, and their younger brother, John, as her nephews and to provide them with financial and moral support whenever they needed it. Thanks to the generosity of both Angelina and Sarah, Grimké was able to complete his law degree at Harvard and to graduate free of debt in 1874. He was one of the first black students to attend Harvard Law School.
In addition to helping him financially, Grimké’s aunts introduced him to many of their influential, abolitionist friends in Boston. Within a short time, he had become a member of their elite social circle. “Here was a world in which white and black men and women interacted, on the surface at least, as equals and friends,” Bruce observed. “It was, moreover, a community in which black and white men and women had long worked together in the cause of racial justice.”
By the time he finished at Harvard, Grimké felt so comfortable in Boston that he decided to stay. He was admitted to the Massachusetts State Bar in 1875, and within a few months he had formed a partnership with a former classmate. They practiced law together for the next three years. During this time Grimké met and married Sarah Stanley, a white woman from an antislavery background. In 1880 they had a daughter, Angelina Weld Grimké. The marriage dissolved shortly thereafter.
In 1883 Grimké, already an active spokesman on issues of social injustice and civil rights, was named editor of the Hub, a weekly newspaper for black Bostonians supported by the then-more progressive Republican party. Although he continued to practice law, his editorial duties consumed most of his time and energy. Week after week he used the newspaper’s columns to voice his opinions on a wide variety of social issues. Not unexpectedly, questions of race, racial identity, and oppression were among his primary concerns.
During these early years, Grimké maintained a strong integrationist stance, urging his African American readers to turn away from the ideas of racial unity and self-segregation then gaining popularity among many of his contemporaries, and to focus instead on a more universal—if somewhat idealistic—notion of “human” power and potential. “How often are we reminded by American prejudice, by proscription laws, that we are Negroes?,” Bruce quoted him as asking in one of his editorials.
According to Bruce, Grimké also wondered, “[Must this be done] by our own people also? Shall we allow our racehood to limit our expanding powers and destiny? Shall we not rather say, ‘Know ye not, all ye, that we are men?” ’ Grimké also became active in the fight for women’s rights, and during the mid-1880s he served as president of the Women’s Suffrage Association of Massachusetts, a black organization involved in procuring the right to vote for women.
By 1885, however, Grimké had become disenchanted with the Republican party, which he felt had not lived up to its liberal reputation, and resigned his job as editor of the Hub. The following year he declared himself an Independent, and by the end of the decade he had become a Democrat. During the late 1880s and early 1890s he wrote dozens of articles for mainstream publications, including the Boston Herald, the Boston Traveler, and the Atlantic Monthly.
In addition, Grimké concentrated on his own literary projects. Chief among them were full-length biographies of William Lloyd Garrison and Charles Sumner, two of New England’s most outspoken abolitionists. He later produced a biography of Télémaque (Denmark) Vesey, leader of the Charleston slave uprising of 1822. “Grimké was never simply an orator or agitator, though both these activities took up a fair amount of his time throughout his long career,” Bruce noted in his biography. “He was also a thinker and scholar, who sought constantly to develop new perspectives on the old problem of racial injustice and oppression in the United States.”
In 1894, thanks to the influence of one of his political friends from Massachusetts, Grimké was appointed American consul to Santo Domingo—now the Dominican Republic. Although he remained in the post for only four years, his diplomatic experience—wherein, for the very first time, he was accepted on the basis of his abilities rather than his color—opened his eyes to the possibilities of an egalitarian society. He returned to the United States in 1898, considerably less tolerant of racism and segregation than he had been before he left.
Grimké quickly became involved in active protests against the repressive Jim Crow legislation that was sweeping the country. Moving to Washington, D.C., the new center of cultural and intellectual life for African Americans, he became a member of the American Negro Academy, a new organization established to bring together the country’s black elite. He took over the presidency of the academy from W. E. B. Du Bois in 1904, and he remained in the position for the next 15 years.
When Grimké became president of the academy in the early 1900s, Booker T. Washington was the leading black figure in the United States. He was also one of the organization’s most active spokesmen. From the beginning, however, Grimké took issue with Washington’s moderate, conciliatory stance regarding race relations. He disagreed fiercely with Washington’s contention that the best way to improve conditions for American blacks was by placating whites, and he argued that the right to vote— which Washington dismissed as inconsequential—was essential if people of color were to survive in an increasingly industrialized, competitive world.
In 1906’s “The Heart of the Race Problem,” one of his most powerful and provocative essays, Grimké linked slavery, segregation, and moral corruption and maintained that white racism would persist as long as segregation continued and until black women received equal protection under American law. “The ship which landed at Jamestown in 1619 with a cargo of African slaves for Virginia plantations, imported at the same time into America with its slave-cargo certain seed-principles of wrong,” Grimké commented. “The enslavement of one race by another produces necessarily certain moral effects upon both races, moral deterioration of the masters, moral degradation of the slaves.”
The problems for black women were especially critical, Bruce explained in his book: “The position of the black woman outside the restraints and laws protecting the white woman made her terribly vulnerable to being pursued by the white man without fear, on his part, of any consequences. If she resisted, she simply became a more attractive prey. When she succumbed, she became a ‘moral plague-spot in the midst of both races’ and part of a vicious circle of moral ruin for both races in the South.”
After 1912, when the city of Washington, D.C. was reeling from the effects of President Woodrow Wilson’s discriminatory policies, Grimké withdrew from the political spotlight to focus his energies on more practical and immediate means of achieving social justice. In early 1914 he became president of the Washington chapter of the NAACP, the main organization struggling to combat the enormous problems posed by the administration’s new and far-reaching policies of federal segregation. Before long, he became the leading figure in this effort.
When the Democratic Caucus passed a resolution dismissing all African American employees in the House and Senate office buildings and replacing them with whites in 1913, Grimké organized a massive rally in protest. In March of 1914, he appeared before the House of Representatives’s Committee on Reform in the Civil Service to speak out against two bills providing for the segregation of blacks in government service. Later that year he worked to block an amendment to an immigration bill that would exclude all black or African people from entering the country and battled another bill that would prohibit interracial marriages in the District of Columbia.
In addition, Grimké played a major role in convincing President Wilson to take a public stand against lynching. When the United States entered World War I, his protests helped to ensure that all black military personnel received equal treatment. In April of 1918, a columnist for the Washington Bee praised Grimké for helping the NAACP “make a noise like activity, get an expression like sincerity, and write ‘deeds, not words,’ all over its constitution and by-laws.” He was awarded the Association’s Spingam Medal in 1919.
Following his retirement from the post of NAACP president in 1925, Grimké withdrew from the public arena. More convinced than ever before of the strength of American racism, he placed much of his hope for the future in what he often described as the coming generation of “New Negroes.” In “The Shame of America or, The Negro’s Case Against the Republic,” his final presidential address to the American Negro Academy, he maintained that the black soldier returning from France after World War I, having experienced the liberty and largesse of French society, had come back prepared to “challenge injustice in his own land and to fight wrong with a courage that will not fail him in the bitter and perhaps bloody years to come.” He spent the last few years of his life in failing health. He died in Washington, D.C. in 1930.
In 1938 the District of Columbia named a school in Grimké’s honor. “Certainly, as a leader, [Grimké’s] influence did not match that of Du Bois or Washington,” Bruce wrote. “But he was a major figure during his time, and his thought and actions were considered of great significance by his contemporaries. His life was a testimony to his efforts to confront both the demands and limitations posed by the racist world in which he had to live.”
Bruce, Dickson D., Jr., Archibald Grimké: Portrait of a Black Independent, Louisiana State University Press, 1993.
Rollins, Charlemae Hill, They Showed the Way, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1964.
Jet, June 27, 1994, p. 20.
Library Journal, July 1993, p. 88.
Washington Bee, April 27, 1918.
—Caroline B. D. Smith
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