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Grimké, Angelina Emilyfree

(20 February 1805–26 October 1879)
  • Dennis Wepman

Angelina Emily Grimké.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ61-1609).

Grimké, Angelina Emily (20 February 1805–26 October 1879), abolitionist and women's rights activist, abolitionist and women’s rights activist, was born in Charleston, South Carolina, the daughter of John Faucheraud Grimké, a planter and judge, and Mary Smith. A member of one of the wealthiest and most aristocratic families in Charleston, her father, who had been a captain in the American Revolution, traced his descent from the city’s earliest Huguenot and German settlers and held the post of senior associate, equivalent to chief justice, of the South Carolina Supreme Court. Her mother’s family had included two colonial governors. From an early age both Angelina and her older sister Sarah Grimké felt unusual sympathy for the slaves on their parents’ plantation. At the age of five Angelina was so distressed at seeing a slave whipped that she begged a sea captain to help him escape to freedom, and at thirteen she objected so strongly to the Episcopal church’s support of slavery that she refused to be confirmed. In 1829 she gave up a life of privilege and went to Philadelphia to join Sarah, who had become a member of the Society of Friends there.

The sisters were not very comfortable with the Quakers, however, and openly defied their rules of dress and speech. Above all, Angelina was dissatisfied with what she considered the Society’s hypocrisy, feeling that their opposition to slavery was too moderate. Increasingly drawn to a more vigorous form of antislavery activism, she wrote a letter in 1835 to William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the radical abolitionist magazine The Liberator, encouraging him in his work. To her dismay, Garrison published the letter on 19 September. It caused a storm of protest, not only among the slaveholders of her own state but among the Philadelphia Friends, including her sister, who urged her to recant. But by now the demure southern belle was thoroughly committed, and instead of recanting she wrote a 36-page pamphlet, Appeal to the Christian Women of the South (1836), calling on her sex in the strongest terms to “overthrow this horrible system of oppression and cruelty, licentiousness and wrong.” With this and a subsequent pamphlet, An Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States (1837), urging reform in the North, she became publicly linked with the abolition movement. As the first white southern woman to speak up forcefully against slavery, she was enthusiastically welcomed by Garrison and his followers. She was also bitterly reviled in South Carolina, where her pamphlets were publicly burned.

Sarah Grimké was soon persuaded to join her sister in antislavery activity, and in 1837 the two accepted an invitation from Elizur Wright, secretary of the American Antislavery Society, to speak to women’s groups in New York. So moving were Angelina’s accounts of the horrors of the slave system that her audiences soon came to include men as she and her sister went on the lecture circuit throughout New England. If their opposition to slavery had outraged the South, the idea of women speaking in public, and especially to “mixed” audiences, offended the North almost as much. They were attacked in the press and from the pulpit, by supporters of slavery and by conservative abolitionists; they were pelted with fruit, and the General Association of Congregational Ministers issued a “Pastoral Letter” forbidding any minister to open his church to women speakers. Undaunted, they both went on speaking. In some five months Sarah and Angelina separately toured sixty-seven New England towns, addressing more than 40,000 people in eighty-eight meetings. The climax of Angelina’s tour was her three-day testimony on the evils of slavery before the Massachusetts legislature early in 1838. It was the first time the state house had ever been opened to a woman speaker, and her eloquence brought tears to the eyes of many.

Angelina, who in 1836 had written, “The investigation of the rights of slaves led me to a better understanding of my own,” became a champion of women’s rights, and in 1838 she wrote a scorching response to a pamphlet opposing engagement by her sex in political activism. Her Letters to Catherine Beecher was much ahead of its time. It argued that women should be allowed not only to help write the laws of the land but to sit in the seats of its government.

On 14 May 1838 Angelina married the abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld, who had trained her for the lecture stage. The wedding in Philadelphia was a sensational event, including six former slaves of the Grimkés among the guests and employing Garrison to read the vows. Her marriage to a Presbyterian and Sarah’s attendance at the unconventional ceremony resulted in the sisters’ official expulsion by the Society of Friends, from which they had in any case long been estranged. The Welds had three children, and Angelina suffered one miscarriage. No longer physically able to bear the strain of public speaking, she and Weld retired to a New Jersey farm, accompanied by Sarah, who lived with them the rest of her life. Together they compiled American Slavery As It Is (1839), an influential exposé of the “peculiar institution” that provided Harriet Beecher Stowe with material for her 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In the 1840s the Welds gave up active involvement in abolitionism and began a school in which the sisters both taught. Pioneers in progressive education, they included young women among their students and gymnasium exercise, rowing, and diving in their curriculum. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Greeley, and Henry David Thoreau were among the visitors who lectured there. Angelina and her husband moved to Hyde Park, Massachusetts, after the Civil War, and Angelina continued teaching until her retirement in 1867. Of her innovative educational practices, biographer and cultural historian Ernest Earnest has written, “It took American colleges seventy or eighty years to catch up with her ideas.” She died in Hyde Park.

Angelina Grimké was among the first to synthesize abolitionism and feminism and to recognize the essential identity of the two causes. Viewed as a fanatic in her own time, she lived to see her beliefs vindicated and helped prepare the way for social reforms in both race relations and women’s rights.

Bibliography

The Angelina Grimké papers are in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and documents related to the Grimké sisters are in the Anti-Slavery Collection at the Boston Public Library and the Weld-Grimké Papers in the William Clements Library at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Books dealing with Angelina Grimké include Theodore Dwight Weld, In Memory: Angelina Grimké Weld (1880); Catherine Birney, The Grimké Sisters: Sarah and Angelina Grimké (1835; repr. 1885, 1969); Letters of Theodore Dwight Weld, Angela Grimké, and Sarah Grimké, 1822–1844, ed. Gilbert H. Barnes and Dwight Dumond (1934); Gerda Lerner, The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina (1967); and Catherine Du Pre Lumpkin, The Emancipation of Angelina Grimké (1974). Objective examinations of the lives and careers of the Grimkés are in Benjamin P. Thomas, Theodore Weld: Crusader for Freedom (1950); Lawrence Lader, The Bold Brahmins: New England’s War against Slavery, 1831–1865 (1961); and Ernest Earnest, The American Eve in Fact and Fiction, 1775–1914 (1974). See also Robert Abzug, Passionate Liberator: Theodore Weld and the Dilemma of Reform (1980), and Blanche Glassman Hersh, The Slavery of Sex: Feminist Abolitionists in America (1978).