The five Rollin sisters were born in Charleston; they included Frances Anne (November 19, 1845–October 17, 1901), Charlotte “Lottie” (1849–?), Kate (1851–March 4, 1876), Louisa (1858–?), and Florence (1861–?). Descendants of émigrés who fled the St. Domingue Revolution in the late eighteenth century, the Rollins were free people of color living prosperously in South Carolina during the era of slavery. The political and social influence and activism of Frances, Lottie, and Louisa within the Reconstruction state government made them the three most notable Rollin sisters.
Before the Civil War the sisters lived in an elegant mansion in Charleston on America Street with their parents, William and Margaretta Rollin. Their father was a devout Catholic who operated a prosperous lumber business. The girls attended private Catholic schools in Charleston, and the three eldest were sent to the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia for secondary education. The Civil War damaged the family’s wealth, and the sisters living in the North were temporarily stranded with family friends. Shortly after the end of the war, they returned to South Carolina and established Columbia as their base of political activity. Known for their grace, intelligence, and charm, the Rollin sisters were active participants in the highest social circles, and their Columbia home became an important, if informal, venue for Republican Party leaders in South Carolina.
During Reconstruction, Frances, Lottie, Louisa, and Kate were active in South Carolina politics. Lottie and Kate taught in Freedmen’s Bureau schools in Columbia and attempted to raise money to establish a Rollin family school. Later they each bought property in Columbia. Lottie Rollin became well known in South Carolina Reconstruction government as a clerk in the office of Congressman Robert Brown Elliott. She was also active in the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) and in 1870 was elected secretary of the South Carolina Woman’s Rights Association. In 1871 Lottie led a rally at the State House to promote woman suffrage. Her younger sister Louisa had addressed the South Carolina House of Representatives on the subject in 1869. By 1872 Louisa and the sisters’ mother, Margaretta, shared Lottie’s home in Columbia. However, following the death of their father in 1880, Lottie and Louisa Rollin moved their mother to Brooklyn, New York. Little else is known of their activities.
Frances Rollin, the most prominent of the sisters, became a writer, educator, law clerk, and civil rights activist. In 1868, while living in Boston, she wrote a biography of the black abolitionist and emigrationist Martin R. Delany, The Life and Times of Martin R. Delany, which she published under the name Frank A. Rollin. The only one of the sisters to marry, Frances wed William J. Whipper, an influential black legislator and later a judge, on September 17, 1868. The marriage produced five children but did not last. In 1880 Frances and her surviving children moved to Washington, D.C. She took a job with the federal government and by the 1890s was helping her youngest daughter, Ionia Rollin Whipper, to finance her studies at the Howard University School of Medicine, where she earned a degree. Returning to Beaufort, South Carolina, with failing health a few years later, Frances died there in 1901.
Gatewood, Willard B. “‘The Remarkable Misses Rollin’: Black Women in Reconstruction South Carolina.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 92 (July 1991): 172–88.
Ione, Carole. Pride of Family: Four Generations of American Women of Color. New York: Summit, 1991.
Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. “Nineteenth-Century Black Women and Woman Suffrage.” Potomac Review 7 (spring–summer 1977): 13–23.