The Grimkés spoke out on the highly controversial issues of slavery in America at a time when women were not expected to become involved in politics.
Yet the Grimkés were no mere novelty. They were highly intelligent and passionate characters on the public stage, and they presented a vivid testimony against slavery in the decade before Frederick Douglass would electrify anti-slavery audiences.
And they had particular credibility as they were natives of South Carolina and came from a slave-owning family considered part of the aristocracy of the city of Charleston. The Grimkés could criticize slavery not as outsiders, but as people who, while having benefited from it, ultimately came to see it as an evil system degrading to both masters and slaves.
Though the Grimké sisters had faded from public view by the 1850s, they played an important role in conveying abolitionist principles in the early stages of the movement in America. And they also were instrumental in bringing women into the movement, and in creating within the abolitionist cause a platform from which to launch a movement for women's rights.
Early Life of the Grimké Sisters
Sarah Moore Grimké was born November 29, 1792, in Charleston, South Carolina. Her younger sister, Angelina Emily Grimké, was born 12 years later, on February 20, 1805. Their family was prominent in Charleston society, and their father, John Fauchereau Grimké, had been a colonel in the Revolutionary War and was a judge on South Carolina's highest court.
The Grimké family was very wealthy and enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle which included owning slaves. In 1818, Judge Grimké became ill and it was determined he should see a doctor in Philadelphia. Sarah, who was 26, was chosen to accompany him.
While in Philadelphia Sarah had some encounters with Quakers, who were very active in the campaign against slavery and the beginnings of what would become known as the Underground Railroad. The trip to a northern city was the most important event in her life. She had always been uncomfortable with slavery, and the perspective of the Quakers convinced her that it was a great moral wrong.
Her father died, and Sarah sailed back to South Carolina with a newfound belief in ending slavery. Back in Charleston, she felt out of step with local society, and by 1821 she had moved to Philadelphia.
Her younger sister, Angelina, remained in Charleston, and the two sisters corresponded regularly. Angelina also picked up anti-slavery ideas. The sisters had inherited slaves, which they freed.
In 1829 Angelina left Charleston. She would never return. Reunited with her sister Sarah in Philadelphia, the two women became active in the Quaker community. They often visiting prisons, hospitals, and institutions for the poor.
The Grimké Sisters Joined the Abolitionists
The sisters spent the early 1830s following a quiet life of religious service, but they were becoming more interested in the cause of abolishing slavery. In 1835 Angelina Grimké wrote an impassioned letter to William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist activist and editor.
Garrison, to Angelina's surprise, and to the consternation of her older sister, published the letter in his newspaper, The Liberator. Some of the Quaker friends of the sister were also upset at Angelina having publicly announced a desire for the emancipation of American slaves. But Angelina was inspired to continue.
In 1836 Angelina published a 36-page booklet titled An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South. The text was deeply religious and drew upon Biblical passages to show the immorality of slavery.
Her strategy was a direct affront to religious leaders in the South who had been using scripture to argue that slavery was actually God's plan for the United States, and that slavery was essentially blessed. The reaction in South Carolina was intense, and Angelina was threatened with prosecution if she ever returned to her native state.
Following the publication of Angelina's booklet, the sisters traveled to New York City and addressed a meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society. They also spoke to gatherings of women, and before long they were touring New England, speaking for the abolitionist cause.
The Sisters Were Popular Speakers
Becoming known as the Grimké Sisters, the two women were a popular draw on the public speaking circuit. An article in the Vermont Phoenix on July 21, 1837 described an appearance by "The Misses Grimké, from South Carolina," before the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society.
Angelina spoke first, talking for nearly an hour. As the newspaper described it:
"Slavery in all its relations moral, social, political and religious was commented upon with radical and stern severity and the fair lecturer showed neither quarter to the system, nor mercy to its supporters.
"Still she did not bestow a title of her indignation upon the South. The Northern press and the Northern pulpit Northern representatives, Northern merchants, and the Northern people, came in for her most bitter reproach and most pointed sarcasm."
The detailed newspaper report noted that Angelina Grimké began by talking about the active slave trade conducted in the District of Columbia. And she urged women to protest the government's complicity in slavery.
She then spoke about slavery as a broadly based American problem. While the institution of slavery existed in the South, she noted that northern politicians indulged it, and northern business people invested in businesses which depended on slave labor. She essentially indicted all of America for the evils of slavery.
After Angelina spoke at the Boston meeting, her sister Sarah followed her on the podium. The newspaper mentioned that Sarah spoke in an affecting manner about religion, and ended by noting that the sisters were exiles. Sarah said she had received a letter informing her she could never again live in South Carolina as abolitionists would not be allowed within the state's borders.
Controversy Followed the Grimké Sisters
A backlash developed against the Grimké Sisters, and at one point a group of ministers in Massachusetts issued a pastoral letter condemning their activities. Some newspaper accounts of their speeches treated them with obvious condescension.
In 1838 they stopped their public speaking, though both sisters would remain involved in reform causes for the rest of their lives.
Angelina married a fellow abolitionist and reformer, Theodore Weld, and they eventually founded a progressive school, Eagleswood, in New Jersey. Sarah Grimké, who also married, taught at the school, and the sisters kept busy publishing articles and books focused on the causes of ending slavery and promoting women's rights.
Sarah died in Massachusetts on December 23, 1873, after a long illness. William Lloyd Garrison spoke at her funeral services.
Angelina Grimké Weld died on October 26, 1879. The famed abolitionist Wendell Phillips spoke of her at her funeral: "When I think of Angelina there comes to me the picture of the spotless dove in the tempest, as she battles with the storm, seeking for some place to rest her foot."