The Grimke Sisters

Sarah and Angelina Grimke are 19th century models of white people breaking rank with supremacy. This is an excerpt from Drew Gilpin Faust’s recent article in The Atlantic Magazine: The Grimke Sisters and The Indelible Stain of Slavery. The article is longish, but certainly deserves to be read in it’s entirety. It explores a new book that details tensions and complications with the Grimke legacy. Tensions and complications that white people breaking rank can learn from today.

Thirteen years apart, the two sisters came to share an abhorrence of the slave system on which their family’s wealth and position depended. Angelina was particularly repelled by the institution’s violence—the sound of painful cries from men, women, and even children being whipped; the lingering scars evident on the bodies of those who served her every day; the tales of the dread Charleston workhouse that, for a fee, would administer beatings and various forms of torture out of sight of one’s own household. Both Sarah and Angelina became deeply religious, rejecting the self-satisfied pieties of their inherited Episcopalian faith, but finding in Christian doctrine a foundation for their growing certainty about the “moral degradation” of southern society. In 1821, Sarah moved to Philadelphia and joined the Society of Friends; by the end of the decade, Angelina had joined her.

Philadelphia was a focal point of the growing antislavery movement, and the sisters were swept up in the ferment. Soon defying Quaker moderation on slavery just as they had defied their southern heritage, the Grimke sisters embraced William Lloyd Garrison and what was seen as the radicalism of abolition. In essays appearing in 1837 and 1838, Angelina and Sarah each set out the case for the liberation of women and enslaved people. They joined the Garrisonian lecture circuit, and Angelina developed a reputation as a sterling orator at a time when women were all but prohibited from the public stage. In 1838, Angelina married the abolitionist leader Theodore Dwight Weld in a racially integrated celebration that adhered to the free-produce movement, including no clothing or refreshments produced by enslaved labor. Weld and the sisters shared a household for most of the rest of their lives, and Sarah became a devoted caretaker of Angelina and Theodore’s three children. Their opposition not just to slavery but to racial inequality and segregation, as well as their support for women’s rights, placed them in the vanguard of reform and at odds with many other white abolitionists. With emancipation, they took up the cause of the freedpeople, which they pursued until they died, Sarah in 1873, Angelina in 1879.

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