Liberty Matters

Remember the Ladies: The Grimké Sisters


The Grimké sisters, Angelina and Sarah, were participants in nearly every social and political movement of their time – they were abolitionists, advocates for women’s right to vote, and devoted participants in the Second Great Awakening. They continue to fascinate us today not only because of the power of their sisterhood but also because they were rather unlikely candidates for the deeply precedent setting work they did in each of these movements. 
The Grimkés grew up on their father’s plantation in Charleston, South Carolina- America’s fourth largest urban area and the South’s premier port. Their father, Judge John Faucheraud Grimké was a prominent lawyer as well as an innovative businessman. The family lived part of the time in one of the most admired houses in Charleston and the rest of the time in the back country on the plantation. The girls’ mother, Mary Smith (aka Polly) was the daughter of one of the city’s leading financiers and one of its wealthiest citizens. These familial conditions were clearly not the usual breeding ground for abolitionists. And, yet, both Angelina and Sarah would become among the first and most prominent Southern women abolitionists.
There were several stories that each sister told that illuminated how they came to understand the injustice of slavery. First, the Grimké children recalled how abusive their mother was to the slaves. In fact, their mother wrote as an aggrieved plantation mistress in defense of slavery for the religious magazine, The Church Intelligencer, “Would you like to stand all day with a pair of heavy shears in your hand, and cut out coarse Negro clothing? Would you like to go into the negro houses and stand hour after hour by the bed of the sick and dying, cheering, and comforting the poor creatures? Would you like to struggle and wrestle with ignorance, stupidity, and the fearful tendency to immorality – alas! Almost inherent in the negro? All around me, throughout the length and breadth of the land, are women who do this.” (Cited in Mark Perry’s Lift Up Thy Voice: The Grimké Family’s Journey From Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders, New York: Viking Penguin, 2001, pgs.24-25) 
This was the dominant view of white southern women who conceived of themselves not only as the beleaguered custodians of slave lives but as the necessary arbiters of Negro morality. It is noteworthy that part of the reason that Southern white women were so invested (literally) in slavery was because slaves were one of the few forms of property that white women, both married and unmarried, were legally permitted to own. Stephanie E. Jones has written a compelling history of this feature, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (New Haven: Yale University, 2019). 
The Grimké children reported that witnessing their mother’s abusive behavior toward enslaved people not only alienated them from her, but also helped them to begin to recognize the trauma of slavery. Even their brother, Thomas, described being glad to leave his mother and head to Yale University in 1805. Sarah often told the story of being a student at Charleston Seminary, an elite private school for the daughters of wealthy families, when a young slave boy came into the classroom to open the window. There were deep gashes down his back and legs, and he moved in obvious pain. Angelina fainted at the sight and then committed the image to memory. She recounted the incident repeatedly over the years, to anyone who would listen. 
Similarly, Sarah described her resistance to slavery at young age when she refused to have a slave girl as her companion. She eventually relented, however, when she saw how brutally her mother treated the girl, and Sarah imagined that she (Sarah) could be a better guardian of her. The girl, Hetty, and Sarah became friends, and Sarah taught Hetty how to read until Judge Grimké discovered the violation and forbade further lessons. Hetty died several years later from an undiagnosed illness. The loss of this companion gave the young Sarah clarity about the injustice of slavery. 
The intimacy of the sisters’ childhood experience with enslaved people also led to one of their most radical insights as adults – slaves were Americans, not Africans. This was their, especially Sarah’s, disagreement with the leading abolitionist society of the time, the American Colonization Society (founded in 1816 – among its founding members, Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, Henry Clay, and President James Madison) which sought a gradual but steady return of enslaved people to Africa. The society would purchase slaves and return them to Africa. Members believed that it was impossible for Blacks and whites to live together.  Embedded in the belief, of course, were assumptions of Black inferiority. 
In disagreement, Sarah made two points: 1) that plantation society itself proved that Black and white could live together and 2) that the ambition for separation was “un-Christian,” a violation of the imago dei (the recognition that all human beings are created in God’s image) and a sign of what she called “color prejudice.” The American Colonization Society was not really about the brutal immorality of slavery but more about the creation (and preservation) of American national identity. To the question of “Who counts as American?” the American Colonization Society answered, “White people.” Black people were different and so should be returned to their native lands. The American Colonization Society soothed the consciences of some members of white society, but it did very little to change either racial hierarchies or the Southern economy dependent on the exploitation of Black labor. 
The Grimké sisters’ commitment to abolition was deeply rooted in their Christian beliefs as well as in their ideals of what constituted “true womanhood.” Their abolitionist views were a counter, also, to the fears among white Southerners that the emancipation of Black men would endanger white women and lead eventually to the unholy amalgamation of the races. In 1839, artist Edward Williams Clay captured these fears in his series, “Practical Amalgamation” which showcased and fanned these grotesque and ridiculous conceptions of racial mixing. 
In her most well-known address, ‘An Appeal to Christian Women of the South,” Angelina begins with an invitation to her “sisters in Christ.” She notes that her message will contain some “unwelcome truths” but insists she is speaking these “truths in love” and like Solomon, “faithful are the wounds of a friend.” Her appeal is made through an erudite biblical exegesis – beginning with a quotation from the Book of Esther (Esther iv: 13-16)– the Jewish queen who defied the king for the good of her people. And, that’s part of Angelina’s appeal: Southern women will have to defy their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons for their own long term good. And, initially, this is what motivates Southern female abolitionists – saving the souls of their kinsfolk. Of less concern was the injustice done to the enslaved; more worrisome was the sinfulness of the institution and its contaminating effects on their relatives. 
Although women do not make the laws, Angelina notes, “you are the wives and mothers, the sisters and daughters of those who do.” And, she notes that women already have four change promoting activities at their disposal. She recommends they 1) Read, especially the Bible which she insisted would convince them that Jesus did not sanction any system of oppression and crime 2) Pray, for the slave as well as for the master. This recommendation with its equivalency was a radical suggestion. 3) Speak, keep calm, and understand that the men in their lives are ignorant. She encourages women to make suggestions, “ask your husband to treat slaves better – to give them breakfast early and to teach them how to read and write.” 4) Act – the boldest recommendation “even if it means breaking the law.” She gives numerous examples of historical figures who have defied man made laws to serve God, “If a law command me to sin, I will break it; if it calls me to suffer, I will let it take its course unresistingly.” It’s a rather brilliant strategy – doing only what “true womanhood” is supposed to do, one can be an abolitionist, aligned with one’s Christian values. That women are God’s chosen agents is at the center of the Christian story, “He (God) hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.” 
Christianity also influences the sisters’ claims for what Sarah names “the original equality of woman.” In her collection of letters On the Equality and Conditions of Woman, Sarah explored the many topics and concerns inaugurating her growing commitment to women’s rights. The letters are addressed to Mary S. Parker, the president of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society – an interracial abolitionist organization. 
In a now well-known and erudite letter, “The Original Equality of Woman” Sarah seeks to know “God’s purpose in the creation of woman.” She begins with an exegesis of the Creation story and asserts, “they were both made in the image of God; dominion was given to both over every other creature, but not over each other.” Then, in a quite caustic observation about the serpent and the eating of the forbidden fruit, Sarah concedes, “had Adam tenderly reproved his wife, and endeavored to lead her to repentance instead of sharing her guilt, I should be much more ready to accord to man that superiority which he claims.” Finally, the letter ends with an evaluation of God’s curse for this defiance. Grimke insists that translators “having been accustomed to exercise lordship over their wives and seeing only through the medium of a perverted judgment…converted a prediction to Eve into a command to Adam; for observe, it is addressed to the woman, not to the man.” 
But the sister’s drive for woman’s equality was not limited to letters. Indeed, when Abigail married Theodore Weld, there were, according to Sarah’s diary, “both white and black, high and low guests.” The ceremony was brief, homemade, and ad hoc, during which the papers reported, “Weld denounced traditional marriage vows and Grimké refused to include the word obey.” The entire ceremony was officiated by a colored Presbyterian minister. Afterwards the guests shared good wishes and a wedding cake baked with “free sugar” – grown, harvested, and manufactured without slave labor. (Detailed in Mark Perry’s biography of the Grimkés, Lift Up Thy Voice: The Grimké Family’s Journey From Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders (Viking Press: New York, 2001)
In May 1838, the Anti-Slavery Convention of Women met at the Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia. Angelina was the main speaker. Throughout the city, there was considerable unrest centered around white fears of amalgamation. During her speech, rioters tossed rocks through the stained-glass window, shattering several. Angelina did not pause asking the audience, “What is a mob? What would the breaking of every window be? What would the leveling of this Hall be? Any evidence that we are wrong, or that slavery is a good and wholesome institution? What if the mob should now burst in upon us, break up our meeting and commit violence upon our persons — would this be anything compared with what the slaves endure?” The next day the Hall was burned to the ground. 
And so ended the Grimké sisters public speaking roles. The sisters, along with Angelina’s husband, Theodore Weld, retreated to Fort Lee, New Jersey where they settled on a small farm and decided to live wholly private lives. Neither Angelina nor Sarah would ever again speak in public about slavery. Sarah focused on her essay writing and Angelina, too, spent time reading and corresponding with friends, happily immersed in domesticity. The sisters also helped Theodore Weld write his magnus opus, American Slavery As It Is which was the testimony of over one thousand witnesses - including the two sisters – of the experience of slavery. The book was largely ignored by the national press, although the Grimké sisters were again attacked by their Southern relatives for their continuing betrayal.
Remembering Sarah and Angelina Grimké during Women’s History Month in 2022 reminds us that even in the most unlikely places and in the most surprising ways, women have found the moral courage to stand up for what is just and to recall others to the principles of liberty. If slaveholding women of the South could have clarity about the abomination of slavery, surely the rest of us can conjure up not only the courage but the acumen to address contemporary issues of injustice.