04. Doing the Right Thing, Even When It Costs You
As the southern belle daughters of a wealthy judge who was owner of a large plantation with hundreds of slaves, Sarah and Angelica Grimké could have had easy lives, as long as they were willing to be subservient, quiet, and could turn a blind eye to slavery.
Sarah, born in 1792, was given tutors for the feminine arts of painting, sewing, and music; her father only formally educated his sons. Her Yale-educated brother taught her math, science, Latin and Greek. In turn, she started teaching slaves to read, which was illegal at the time. In 1819, she accompanied her father to Philadelphia in order for him to seek medical treatment. While there, she encountered Quakers, also known as the Society of Friends, and heard their anti-slavery views. Sarah had always known that slavery was wrong, but now she had finally met like-minded people. When they returned to South Carolina, Sarah could no longer abide a life based on the enslavement of others. Although her family highly disapproved, she converted to Quakerism and moved to Philadelphia in 1821. Her youngest sister, Angela, born in 1805, soon joined her.
The two sisters began writing pamphlets and giving speeches especially encouraging women to persuade their husbands, fathers, and sons to end slavery. Southern leaders were so upset, they burned the pamphlets and threatened to arrest them if the sisters ever returned to South Carolina.
The North did not relish the thought of out-spoken women, even when they were speaking out against slavery. Most abolition groups were dominated by men and the women were allowed more as attendees and helpers. The General Association of Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts actually wrote public statements condemning the sisters for such “unwomanly behavior.”
Now the sisters found themselves becoming part of the budding women's rights movement. They were not even asking for the right to vote at this time; they were fighting for the simplest of things like the basic right of women to speak in public. In 1828, Angela Grimké became the first woman to address a formal legislative body when she brought a petition to the Massachusetts State Legislature. It was signed by 20,000 women seeking to end slavery.
On May 9, 1837, the sisters attended the first Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in New York City. Not only was this a bold step for abolition, but this was the first time that women’s rights were formally discussed in public including the rights of women of color. The records indicate that five Black women attended; Julia Williams of Boston, MA, was one of them. There were threats of violence to those who attended especially towards the women of color. Leaders such as the Grimké sisters, Lucretia Mott, and Lydia Maria Child deliberately walked arm in arm with the women of color on the way to the convention declaring that all women are sisters.
The Grimké sisters were already invested in racial equality long before they learned that they had Black nephews. Their brother Henry Grimké, a widower, had three sons with a slave named Nancy Weston. Henry did educate his two oldest bi-racial sons but didn’t free them. Nancy was pregnant with their third son when Henry died. Upon his death, Henry’s white son and legal heir, Montague Grimké, claimed his half-brothers as slaves and did not treat them like family as his father had requested. When the sisters learned of their nephews, Archibald Henry Grimké (1849-1930) and Francis “Frank” James Grimké (1850-1937), they helped fund their education. Archibald became a lawyer and Frank went on to become a minister. The third son, John Grimké, had severed relations with his family before his aunts knew about him; there is little record of what happened to him. Frank’s wife, Charlotte Forten Grimké (1837-1914) became an important Black suffragist and civil rights activist. Archibald’s daughter Angelia Weld Grimké (1880-1958) became a poet and playwright whose work became a foundational part of the Harlem Renaissance.
This week’s song pick:
“Confident” by Demi Lovato (Multifemale Fan Compilation) https://youtu.be/pnubPIBqWtI
Episode 04 Sources: