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Tuesday, August 1, 2023

August 1, 2023: SiblingStudying: The Grimké Sisters

[On August 2nd, this AmericanStudier’s amazing younger sister celebrates her birthday. So this week in her honor I’ll AmericanStudy interesting American siblings!]

On the two sisters who exemplified the courage and power of American abolitionism.

As I’ve argued before in this space, it might seem from our 21st century perspective as if it were relatively easy or at least didn’t take a great deal of courage to be an abolitionist in mid-19th century America, but that perception would be entirely wrong. William Lloyd Garrison being dragged through the streets of Boston is only the most overt of many similar examples of just how unpopular and even hated abolitionists and abolitionism were by many Americans (from every region). Yet even within a community defined by its courage and impressiveness, certain individuals and voices can still stand out, can truly exemplify the kinds of impassioned and heroic activism that represent the best of what Americans can be and do. And within the abolitionist community, two such individuals were the Grimké sisters, Angelina and Sarah.

Virtually every detail and stage of the sisters’ lives defines their courage. Born to a prominent Charleston, South Carolina judge and his wife, part of an established and comfortable Southern family—and thus by definition in the period a slaveholding family—both sisters by their mid-20s had come to see the institution of slavery as a moral and national disgrace, and both chose self-exile (first to Philadelphia and then to many other Northern cities) from their family and home. Told repeatedly that women could and should not speak in public, particularly not to “promiscuous” (mixed-gender) audiences, the sisters gave shared speaking engagements throughout the north nonetheless; Sarah also wrote a series of “Letters on the Equality of the Sexes” to protest such gender biases. Notified that she could never return to Charleston or risk imprisonment and arrest, Angelina wrote an Appeal to the Christian Women of the South to make her case in that way. When she learned that educator and abolitionist Catherine Beecher supported colonization for freed slaves and other American blacks, Angelina wrote Letters to Catherine Beecher, calling out the colonization idea as just another kind of racism. And this all before they had lived in the North for ten years!

Perhaps a single 1838 event best sums up the sisters’ courageous activism; I’ll quote the above-linked Gilder Lehrman Institute article on it: “Two days after their wedding, Angelina and Theodore [Weld] attended the anti-slavery convention in Philadelphia. Feelings ran high in the city as rumors spread of whites and blacks parading arm in arm down city streets, and by the first evening of the event, a hostile crowd had gathered outside the convention hall. Sounds of objects being thrown against the walls reverberated inside. But Angelina Grimke rose to speak out against slavery. ‘I have seen it! I have seen it!’ she told her audience. ‘I know it has horrors that can never be described.’ Stones hit the windows, but Angelina continued. For an hour more, she held the audience’s rapt attention for the last public speech she would give. The next morning, an angry mob again surrounded the hall, and that evening, set fire to the building, ransacked the anti-slavery offices inside, and destroyed all records and books that were found.” The sisters and Weld, like Garrison and many other abolitionists, continued their efforts for many decades—but an individual moment like this can make clear both the forces against which they strove and their determination to share their voices and arguments nonetheless.

Next siblings tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Sibling stories you’d highlight?

PPS. I’d be remiss in not highlighting here a great recent book that offers a very different take on the Grimké family, Kerri Greenridge’s The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family (2022).

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