With familial ties to many of the lowcountry elite, the Grimké family was among the upper echelon of antebellum Charleston society. However, Sarah and Angelina rejected a privileged lifestyle rooted in a slave economy and became nationally known abolitionists no longer welcome in South Carolina.
Abolitionists. Sarah Moore Grimké, born on November 26, 1792, and her sister Angelina Emily Grimké, born on February 20, 1805, were the daughters of jurist and cotton planter John Faucheraud Grimké and Mary Smith. With familial ties to many of the lowcountry elite, the Grimké family was among the upper echelon of antebellum Charleston society. However, Sarah and Angelina rejected a privileged lifestyle rooted in a slave economy and became nationally known abolitionists no longer welcome in South Carolina. They first became involved in the public sphere through charity work in Charleston. Their mother was the superintendent of the Ladies Benevolent Society in the late 1820s, and both sisters were members. Serving on the society’s visiting committees, they entered the homes of the poor white and free black women of the city. They later described the conditions in which the poor lived in speeches and letters. Sarah also worked as a Sunday school teacher for blacks at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church. In this capacity, she questioned why African Americans could not be taught to read the Bible instead of relying on oral instruction. Both sisters began to challenge the contradictions between the teachings of Christian faith and the laws and practices of slaveholding society.
Sarah began spending time in Philadelphia with Quaker friends while Angelina befriended a Charleston minister from the North in 1823. Angelina soon embraced egalitarianism and attended the intimate Quaker services available in Charleston, leading to quarrels with her other siblings and suspicion from the community. In November 1829, Angelina left Charleston for Philadelphia as Sarah had done years earlier. The sisters found acceptance in the North. They joined the American Antislavery Society in 1835 and became the first female antislavery agents, speaking out against racial prejudice and using their firsthand experiences in South Carolina as examples. State and local governments in the South responded to the published letters and speeches of abolitionists by banning all antislavery messages through censorship of local newspapers and incoming mail. In Charleston a mob broke into the post office in July 1835 and burned the antislavery literature. Following the Charleston riot, Angelina wrote a letter to abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison that declared emancipation a cause worth dying for, which Garrison published in his antislavery newspaper, The Liberator. Other newspapers reprinted the letter, bringing the Grimké sisters notoriety, and they became pariahs no longer welcome in their native state. After a speaking tour throughout New England, Angelina became the first American woman to speak to a legislative body when she addressed a committee of the Massachusetts legislature in February 1838 asking for a stronger stance against slavery. She proclaimed herself a “repentant slaveholder” and said, “I stand before you as a southerner, exiled from the land of my birth by the sound of the lash and the piteous cry of the slave.” Angelina believed, “It is sinful in any human being to resign his or her conscience and free agency to any society or individual.” Thus, she rejected not only slavery but also society’s restrictions on women.
Sarah and Angelina had cut themselves off from their family and community in the South, but they were not alone in the North. Their intimate circle of friends, which included Harriet Beecher Stowe, was supplemented by new family members. On May 14, 1838, Angelina married Theodore Weld, minister, abolitionist, and temperance speaker. They had two sons and a daughter. Her role as mother did not lessen Angelina’s commitment to abolition and, later, women’s rights. After emancipation, the Grimké sisters discovered that they had nephews living in the North who were the sons of their younger brother Henry and a slave mistress. The Charleston Grimkés had refused to acknowledge their biracial relatives, but Sarah and Angelina cultivated a friendly relationship with them–a relationship that further distanced them from Charleston’s white society. The Grimké sisters remained public figures, supporting women’s suffrage until their deaths. Sarah died on December 23, 1873, and Angelina on October 26, 1879.
Birney, Catherine H. The Grimké Sisters: Sarah and Angelina Grimké, The First American Women Advocates of Abolition and Women’s Rights. 1885. Reprint, New York: Haskell House, 1970.
Lerner, Gerda. Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women’s Rights and Abolition. Rev. ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.