Grimke Family’s Journey from Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders
by Mark Perry
Do you have the boldness to make a 180 degree turnaround in your life and take a completely different direction? That is what the independent-minded Grimke sisters of South Carolina did in rejecting their family’s life style and striking out on their own, eventually moving north to Philadelphia and becoming leaders in the abolitionist cause. The elder sister Sarah was dissatisfied with the Episcopal church and influenced by the preaching of Charles Finney, sought a deeper more personal relationship with God, joining first the Presbyterian church and eventually becoming a Quaker.
Disappointed that, as a girl, she couldn’t study for the law as her brother, Sarah attended a private girls’ school in Charleston. One day a small slave boy came into the classroom to open the windows and she saw the deep bloody gashes in his back from a lashing. This left a lasting impression on her and she began to argue with her father about owning slaves.
Sarah spent hours shut in her room in prayer, seeking God’s will for her life.When her younger sister Angelina was born, the teenage Sarah took over her care and Angelina grew up calling her “Mother.” Though greatly influenced by her sister in her views on slavery, Angelina was perhaps even more independent and a much better public speaker.
I didn’t realize that the Quaker church refused to be involved in the anti-slavery movement at this time. When the Grimke sisters began to be active in the movement, the other parishioners disapproved. I felt that Sarah was a truly brave person and an independent thinker. She impacted the course of history as she wrote and spoke out against slavery as a former slave owner.
The author points out that most of the techniques for political action we use today were devised by the Grimkes and friends. Direct mail, circulating petitions and making direct appeals to targeted audiences are some of the means the sisters used to get their message across.
Sarah’s younger brother Henry took Nancy Weston,a slave, as his mistress after the death of his wife and she gave birth to three sons: Archibald, Francis and John Grimke. After Henry’s death, Sarah saw to it that the older two boys were educated at Howard University and later at Harvard. Francis became a Presbyterian minister in Washington, DC and Archibald was a scholar and writer, actively working to end slavery.
Archibald’s daughter, Angelina Weld Grimke, became a poet and playwright, one of the early formers of the Harlem renaissance. Her play Rachel, brought up the themes of lynching of black men and rape of black women.
This book provides a fascinating view into the lives of these nineteenth century women who moved beyond the lines society drew to live up to their beliefs. I was challenged by the life of Sarah Grimke as I believe it must take great courage to reject all you have ever known and act upon your convictions. I definitely recommend it.