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courageous sisters who helped america become a better nation

Courageous Sisters Who Helped America Become A Better Nation

Following America’s war of independence, 1775 – 1783, Charleston, South Carolina native, John Faucheraud Grimke’, born in 1752, became a successful lawyer, judge, legislator, mayor of Charleston, plantation owner, slave owner, and wrote books on South Carolina law that were used for several decades. He married Mary Moore Smith, an heiress of one of South Carolina’s oldest and wealthiest families and with her had 14 children, most of whom followed predicable paths that led to success in work and marriage.  

Two of John’s and Mary’s children took a different path, however, and rose to extraordinary heights in service to their country in a way John and Mary would never have dreamed of. From the 1820s to the 1870s, a lot of the work and determination of these two Grimke’ daughters reflected their desire to rectify the abuses caused by privileges granted to slave owners, many of whom, like one of their older brothers, took sexual advantage of slave women they owned. The two, who have made an indelible mark on American history, were sisters Sarah Moore Grimke’, 1792 – 1873, and Angelina Emily Grimke’, 1805 – 1879.

Their father, John Grimke’, was said to have been harsh on his slaves. Both he and his wife Mary demanded obedience and hard work. As young girls, watching how their parents and other slave owners treated their slaves distressed the sisters. They felt as if their fellow humans, black or white, should not be treated so cruelly, and that one human should not have that kind of humiliating power over another. Seeing the way her father and other slave owners controlled the lives of their slaves prompted Sarah Grimke’ to write that: “I know nothing of man’s rights or woman’s rights; human rights are all I recognize.” This all-encompassing phrase was her motto throughout her life, and both of the sisters did their best to live by it, treating all people with human dignity and respect.

As a young woman, Sarah surreptitiously began teaching some of her father’s slaves to read and write. The practice was illegal at the time in South Carolina. Even though she was the daughter of a prominent lawyer, her actions showed that at a young age she had the courage to put human morality over laws that she considered wrong and unjust.

Despite her discomfort over how he treated his slaves, Sarah and her father were close. John could see that his daughter had a perceptive mind and once made the comment that had she been a man, she would have made a great lawyer. Unfortunately, in South Carolina in the early 1800s, women did not go to law school. It would not be until 1918 that a female graduated with a law degree in South Carolina.

When in his late 60s, John became ill and needed to go to Philadelphia for treatment that he could not get in Charleston, Sarah went with him as his nurse. There she met some members of the Quaker religion who shared her views on the treatment of slaves and the equality of men and women. After treatment in Philadelphia, John was advised to move near the sea but to stay close to his Philadelphia doctors. So, the two of them moved to a house in Long Branch, New Jersey. He died there on August 9, 1819 at the age of 67.

Following her father’s death, Sarah returned home. But meeting the Quakers had opened her eyes to an attitude on the rights and equality of all humans that she had not found in Charleston. After only two years with her family in Charleston, in 1821 when she was 29 years old, she moved to Philadelphia. For a few years she would return occasionally to visit her mother and siblings, and she had become especially close to her younger sister, Angelina.  But she did not move back permanently. And, as it turned out, a few years later when she became a well-known anti-slavery speaker and writer, the local Charleston authorities proclaimed that she would be arrested if she ever returned.

Then, in 1829, at the age of 24, Angelina left Charleston and joined her sister in Philadelphia. Working together in the 1830s, the two became a formidable force for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights. Their views on social issues were so far ahead of their time that even some of their Quaker colleagues felt as if they were going too far.

When Sarah and Angelina joined forces and began speaking and writing about their abolitionist views, many people, especially in the South, saw them as disrupting the social order of the day which established an unwritten hierarchy that everyone was expected to live by. At the top was God, then white men, below them were white women, and at the bottom were black men and women, free or enslaved. Also at the bottom of this American caste system were American Indians who were continually being pushed west by treaties and warfare.

The idea that the Grimke’ sisters were advocating equal rights for all people, regardless of sex or color, irritated the conservatives of the day, especially southerners who viewed African slaves as not only second-rate-humans but as the backbone of the southern economy. Opposing slavery was tantamount to calling for the end of the southern plantation system. Most southerners felt that rice, indigo, cotton and other profitable crops could not be grown without cheap slave labor.

One instance that showed how the sisters felt about slavery was that in the 1830s when their mother was making out her will, each sibling was given a number of slaves. Sarah and Angelina freed the few slaves they had been allotted, a move which went against the customs of the day. Their mother passed away in 1839 at the age of 75.

By the mid-1830s the sisters started giving lectures on ending slavery and racism and the equality of men and women. At first, they spoke only to small groups in people’s homes. But as their popularity spread, they began lecturing in churches and meeting halls, sometimes to audiences which included women and men both black and white. The fact that the sisters gave lectures to mixed audiences created an undercurrent of opposition, even in their adopted home of Philadelphia, which, ironically, Quaker William Penn had founded to be “the city of brotherly love”.  To many staunch conservatives of the day, Sarah and Angelina were women who were presumptuously assuming the privileges of public speaking which had always been allotted to men only.

In 1836 both sisters wrote pamphlets that made them very unpopular in the South. Angelina wrote An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South which called on southern women to work for the abolition of slavery and to ignore the laws of the day that prohibited the teaching of blacks to read and write.

Sarah wrote An Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States in an attempt to appeal to the Christian moral responsibility of churchmen to allow all people to live free. Although some people might have pondered the noble sentiments expressed in the sisters’ pamphlets, the general response was that several slave owners and southern ministers publicly burned the pamphlets. Charleston city officials threatened to imprison the sisters if they came within the city limits. Their abolitionism and work for the equality of the sexes had made them outcasts in their home town.

It was not only in the south that the sisters were criticized. A letter from a group of northern ministers to the sisters in 1837 cited bible verses that implied that by speaking in public they were “stepping out of woman’s proper sphere”. This prompted Sarah to write Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women in which she stated that:

“…men and women are created equal. Whatever is right for a man to do is right for a woman. I seek no favors for my sex. I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks and permit us to stand upright on that ground which God destined us to occupy.”

These were strong words intended to knock self-righteous chauvinists off of their pedestals. It also echoed the same theme of male suppression of women that an earlier woman had written about. English feminist, Mary Astell, who lived from 1666 to 1731, wrote:

“If all men are born free, how is it that women are born slaves? As they must be if the being subjected to the inconsistent, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of men, be the perfect condition of slavery?”

Both of these outspoken women admonished men to recognize that women had the same intellectual capabilities as men and that men had no right to assume they were superior in any way except perhaps in brute strength.

But the male prejudice that men had a right to dominate women had been festering in many parts of the world for centuries and it lingered on and continued to show itself in both subtle and violent ways.

An incident in Philadelphia showed just how strong the prejudice was. In 1838 Angelina gave a moving speech on abolition at the Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia. The hall, which had only been open for a few days, had already become a venue for talks on women’s rights and anti-slavery topics, prompting many status-quo conservatives to advocate that it should be shut down. Angelina’s lecture to a mixed audience was the final straw for the most virulent of the pro-slavery, anti-feminist crowd. The next night after Angelina’s speech, an out-of-control mob burned the building to the ground. It was said that the fire department sprayed water on the surrounding buildings but did little to save the hall itself. None of the perpetrators were convicted.

As the fame of the sisters spread, they began to work with other abolitionists. One of these was Theodore Dwight Weld. Born in 1803 in Hampton, Connecticut, by the 1830s Weld had become one of America’s most outspoken advocates of abolition. He traveled extensively giving impassioned speeches throughout the northern states. It was inevitable that he would become acquainted with Sarah and Angelina Grimke’.

By the time the three abolitionists met, each had established a reputation with a following of both supporters and detractors. As an influential member of the Anti-Slavery Society, Theodore had recruited followers such as James G. Birney, Henry Ward Beecher, and Henry’s sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, who in 1852 became famous when she published Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Sarah, Angelina, and Theodore were soon collaborating on a number of publications. Two of the most notable were The Bible Against Slavery which came out in 1837 and Slavery As It Is, published in 1839, which strongly influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe when she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Sarah and Angelina had developed into eloquent speakers and became well known throughout the northern states. In February 1838, Angelina became the first woman in the United States to address a legislative body when she addressed a committee of the Massachusetts State Legislature. Abolitionist Robert F. Wallcut praised her oratory skills by saying: “Angelina Grimke’s serene, commanding eloquence enchained attention, disarmed prejudice and carried her hearers with her.”

While working closely together, Theodore and Angelina fell in love and on May 17, 1838 were married in Philadelphia. The wedding was unconventional for the time in that the couple wrote their own wedding vows and the wedding was officiated by a black and a white minister, each of whom gave the newlyweds marital blessings.

Even after Theodore and Angelina were married, Sarah continued to be closely involved in the family. After the wedding, the three of them moved to a farm in Belleville, New Jersey. In the next few years, Theodore began to lose his voice and was not able to keep up his busy public speaking schedule. But always the educator, while in New Jersey, Theodore started two schools, one in Bellville and another in Perth Amboy. He also spent time in Washington from 1841 to 1843 where he worked on anti-slavery issues in Congress. The sisters continued their travels and lecturing on both abolitionism and women’s rights.

After the American Civil War, the trio left New Jersey and moved north to Hyde Park, Massachusetts near Boston and established a residence there. Hyde Park was an open-minded historical area that a few years earlier had been the site of Camp Meigs which was the Civil War training camp where the two African American Union army regiments, the 54th and 55th had trained. In July 1863 these units, under the leadership of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, fought near Charleston, South Carolina at the Battle of Fort Wagner.

In February 1868, while reading an article by Edwin Bower, a professor at Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania near Philadelphia, Angelina noted that he mentioned an outstanding student named Archibald Grimke’. This was interesting since the sisters did not know of any Grimke’s in the Philadelphia area at that time. When Angelina and Sarah looked into the matter, they discovered they had three mixed-race nephews from their brother Henry W. Grimke’ and a former slave named Nancy Weston.

Henry had been married to a white woman, Selina Simmons and had three children by her before she died in 1843. After her death, Henry sent his children to boarding school and he and Weston moved to one of the Grimke’ plantations outside of Charleston and lived in a common law relationship. In the next few years, the couple had three sons, the last of whom was born two months after Henry Grimke’s death in 1852 of typhoid fever.

In his will Henry left Nancy and the three children to his oldest white son, Edward Montague Grimke’. The younger Grimke’ moved Nancy and his mixed-race half-brothers from the plantation into a house on Coming Street in Charleston but did little to support them.

Nancy, although still considered a slave, lived in Charleston as a ‘free woman of color’. She worked at odd jobs and educated her sons as best she could. After the Civil War ended the boys attended Avery Institute in Charleston, a school for African Americans established by the American Missionary Association in 1865. The three then went north and enrolled in Lincoln University and became noted scholars.

After making contact with their nephews, Sarah and Angelina learned about the relationship between Henry and Nancy and the birth of their three sons, Archibald, Francis, and John Grimke’. Since Sarah and Angelina had not lived in Charleston for several years, they did not know about the sons. This was quite a revelation to them.

Surprised but undaunted by the unexpected situation, the sisters immediately took responsibility for their nephews and made sure they got good educations. After attending Lincoln University, Archibald went on to Harvard Law School, Francis went to Princeton Theological Seminary. John decided to return to the South and lived in Charleston most of his life.

Archibald and Francis did well in their careers. Archibald became a successful attorney and was appointed US Consul to Santo Domingo. Francis became an ordained minister and for several years was pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington DC. In 1909 both brothers participated in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Late in her life, Nancy Weston moved from Charleston to Washington DC to be near Francis and his wife Charlotte Forten Grimke’. Nancy died there in February 1895.

After moving to Hyde Park, Massachusetts, Sarah, Angelina, and Theodore took on slightly different roles. Since the Civil War had freed the slaves and their work as abolitionists was no longer necessary, Sarah and Angelina doubled their efforts for women’s rights. They continued to lecture and stir up controversy among those who were happy with the status quo of women being lower on the social hierarchy than men.

One example of the sisters’ staunch resolve was an event that made a strong point and got national attention. In 1870 the sisters led a delegation of 47 Hyde Park women to cast ballots in a local election. This was fifty years before the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution granted women the privilege of voting. Their defiance of the laws of the day was considered a radical gesture and became a topic of debate around the country. The act turned out to be a great boost to women’s suffrage.

Unfortunately, because of the restrictive laws of the day, the women’s votes were only symbolic. The women were forced to cast their ballots in a separate box from the men’s ballots and the votes were not counted. But their point had been made. These women felt they deserved the right to vote! And they had demonstrated that they were brave enough and determined enough to keep working toward that goal. The ballots were saved and today are stored as part of the collections of the Hyde Park Historical Society.

In Hyde Park, Theodore turned his attention to fighting the racism that became rampant in the south after the Civil War. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other racists organizations were making life miserable for many freed slaves trying to fit into mainstream American society and earn a living. He was appalled that many white southerners, from field workers to politicians, were engaged in white supremist acts that ranged from social discrimination to lynching.

After a few years, Theodore became interested in the history of his new home and in March 1887 he and some associates founded the Hyde Park Historical Society. The collection of documents and memorabilia, including the ballots cast by the Grimke’ sisters and their compatriots in the 1870 election, is today housed in Weld Hall, a section of the Hyde Park Branch of the Boston Public Library.

Sarah, Angelina, and Theodore remained in Hyde Park, Massachusetts and all three died there: Sarah in 1873, Angelina in 1879, and Theodore in 1895. One could speculate as to whether John and Mary Grimke’ would have been proud of the fortitude and organizational abilities of their daughters or distraught that they turned against the customs of the day and the institution that built the southern economy.

Sarah and Angelina, working with Theodore Weld dedicated their lives to setting people free from oppression: African Americans from slavery and women from stifling domination by tradition-minded men. Many of the freedoms Americans enjoy today, though certainly not perfect, are the result of these crusaders and of people like them who sacrificed their time and fortune to make the world a more equitable, cooperative, and safer place to live.

Ted McCormack

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