Grimké, Angelina and Sarah

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Sarah and Angelina Grimké

Sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké grew up in a prominent family in Charleston, South Carolina . Sarah was born in 1792, and Angelina, her parents’ fourteenth child, was born in 1805. The Grimkés lived alternately between a fashionable townhouse in Charleston and a sprawling plantation in the country. Like other large plantation owners, they kept scores of slaves who did all the labor, from picking cotton to caring for the children.

Even as children, both Grimké sisters were uncomfortable with the social traditions around them, and particularly about their family owning slaves. Sarah defied her parents’ rules—and South Carolina's laws—by teaching a young slave in the household how to read. She also questioned the roles she was expected to fulfill as a young woman. She knew she was good at debating legal and social issues with her well-educated brother and father, but when her brother left for law school, she was told that she could not follow in his footsteps because of her gender. When Angelina was born, the thirteen-year-old Sarah assumed responsibility for her youngest sibling. As Angelina grew older, she too struggled with the issue of slavery .

Moving north

In 1818, Sarah accompanied her father to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania . He died, leaving Sarah temporarily alone in the big city. There she met some members of the city's Society of Friends (Quakers ). They introduced Sarah to the works of Quaker leader John Woolman (1720–1772). Woolman strongly condemned slavery as evil and encouraged action against it. Sarah identified with his antislavery doctrine. She converted to the Quaker religion, particularly attracted by the fact that Quakers professed to allow women to become leaders within the church.

In 1827, when Sarah returned to Charleston for a visit, Angelina was impressed by the simplicity of her sister's lifestyle and her Quaker philosophy of nonviolence. She soon converted and joined her sister in Philadelphia.

Quakers and abolitionists

In Philadelphia, Sarah and Angelina strove to be active in the Quaker church and the antislavery cause. Sarah studied to become a member of the clergy, but it soon became apparent to her that the Quakers were not truly equality-minded when it came to the sexes. Meanwhile, Angelina attempted to further her education. The Quakers, disapproving of her ambitions, offered her a teaching position in an infant school. Angelina halfheartedly agreed.

At that time, a widespread abolition movement was forming. Antislavery speakers were flooding the East Coast with messages that included emancipation, or freedom for the slaves; abolition, or the end of slavery altogether; and recolonization, or sending the nation's black population to Africa, where they could live freely. Sarah and Angelina longed to be directly involved in the fight against slavery.

American Anti-Slavery Society

In 1833, Angelina read about the formation of the American AntiSlavery Society (AASS) in fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison's (1805–1879) abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. The Garrison-led AASS was the first interracial (composed of more than one race) society that supported immediate emancipation of slaves.

Angelina attended AASS meetings in Philadelphia and became a member of the society's committee for the improvement of people of color. Angelina wrote to Garrison telling him how important his fight against slavery was to her. Garrison, deeply moved by Angelina's letter, reprinted it in The Liberator. Response was overwhelming, and soon the letter was reprinted in all the major reform newspapers of the day. The antislavery community embraced the sisters. The Philadelphia Quakers, though, did not approve, and forced Angelina to renounce her Quaker membership. Angelina stepped up her efforts in the AASS, participating in its antislavery conventions. Meantime, Sarah supported the “Free Produce” movement—a call to boycott, or stop buying, products made by slaves.

Power of the pen

In early 1836, Sarah and Angelina had settled in Rhode Island , where they began to write a series of antislavery pamphlets and books. Angelina wrote An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South (1836), a pamphlet arguing that slavery violated the teachings of Jesus, the Bible, and the Declaration of Independence . It was the only known antislavery appeal ever written by a Southern woman for Southern women. Favorably reviewed by abolition supporters in the North, the pamphlet was burned in the South. Angelina was threatened with arrest if she returned to Charleston.

Sarah produced An Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States, followed by An Address to Free Colored Americans. These antislavery tracts had a huge impact on public opinion of the era. Because the women had grown up in a respectable family in the South, their views carried more weight than any Northerner's views could.

Public speaking

The sisters began speaking before small groups of women about their experiences of slavery in the South. In 1837, the Anti-Slavery Society sponsored a New England speaking tour for Angelina and Sarah. The sisters received training for the tour from well-known abolitionist Theodore Weld (1803–1895). They lectured mainly in churches, giving some eighty speeches in sixty-seven communities, speaking to a combined audience of at least forty thousand men and women over a six-month period.

Up to that time, women did not address audiences with both men and women in attendance. The Grimkés added to the furor by being highly outspoken on the most controversial issues of the day. While some praised their courageous stand against slavery, many others attacked their character.

The Grimkés responded to their attackers. Angelina wrote a series of letters in The Liberator about the position of women in American society. (Garrison was one of the few abolitionist males willing to take up the cause of feminism , which lost him some advocates.) Meanwhile, Sarah wrote a pamphlet called Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women.

Angelina addresses the Massachusetts legislature

On February 21, 1838, Angelina presented to the Massachusetts legislature a petition to end slavery that had been signed by twenty thousand Massachusetts women. She was the first woman in U.S. history to speak to a legislative body. In front of a packed house, she delivered a fiery speech, confronting curious and jeering faces in the audience. Ten years before the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention in New York , the Grimkés faced criticism, threats, and mockery as they combined reform work on slavery with a public struggle for women's rights.

Afterward, Angelina married Weld. He and the sisters moved to a farm in New Jersey . There, the sisters wrote articles and speeches for others to recite at antislavery and women's rights conventions. They also took in abolitionists as boarders.

Fighting for women

After the American Civil War (1861–65), Weld and the Grimkés relocated to Hyde Park, a part of Boston, where they opened a coeducational school and continued to fight for minority rights. On March 7, 1870, when Sarah was seventy-nine and Angelina sixty-six, the sisters boldly declared a woman's right to vote (suffrage) by depositing ballots in the local election. Along with forty-two women, the sisters marched in procession in a driving snowstorm to the polling place. Onlookers jeered them but, because of the sisters’ ages, they were not arrested. The gesture did not change the law against women voting, but their fight for women's suffrage rights did receive a lot of publicity.

Sarah died in 1873. Angelina suffered several strokes after Sarah's death, which left her paralyzed for the last six years of her life. She died in 1879.

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Grimké, Angelina and Sarah

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