Biography of Angelina Grimké, American Abolitionist

Angelina Grimke, circa 1820s
Fotosearch / Getty Images

Angelina Grimké (February 21, 1805–October 26, 1879) was a southern woman from a slaveholding family who, along with her sister, Sarah, became an advocate of abolitionism. The sisters late became advocates of women's rights after their anti-slavery efforts were criticized because their outspokenness violated traditional gender roles. With her sister and her husband Theodore Weld, Angelina Grimké wrote "American Slavery As It Is," a major abolitionist text.

Fast Facts: Angelina Grimké

  • Known For: Grimké was an influential abolitionist and women's rights advocate.
  • Born: February 20, 1805 in Charleston, South Carolina
  • Parents: John Faucheraud Grimké and Mary Smith
  • Died: October 26, 1879 in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Spouse: Theodore Weld (m. 1838-1879)
  • Children: Theodore, Sarah

Early Life

Angelina Emily Grimké was born on February 20, 1805, in Charleston, South Carolina. She was the 14th child of Mary Smith Grimké and John Faucheraud Grimké. Mary Smith's wealthy family included two governors during colonial times. John Grimké, who was descended from German and Huguenot settlers, had been a Continental Army captain during the Revolutionary War. He served in the state House of Representatives and was the state's chief justice.

The family spent their summers in Charleston and the rest of the year on the Beaufort plantation. The Grimké plantation produced rice until the invention of the cotton gin made cotton more profitable. The family owned many slaves, including field hands and household servants.

Angelina, like her sister Sarah, was offended by slavery from an early age. She fainted one day at the seminary when she saw a slave boy her own age opening a window and noticed that he could barely walk and was covered on his legs and back with bleeding wounds from a whipping. Sarah tried to console and comfort her, but Angelina was shaken by the experience. At age 13, Angelina refused confirmation in the Anglican church of her family because of the church's support for slavery.

When Angelina was 13, her sister Sarah accompanied their father to Philadelphia and then to New Jersey for his health. Their father died there, and Sarah returned to Philadelphia and joined the Quakers, drawn by their anti-slavery stance and their inclusion of women in leadership roles. Sarah briefly returned home to South Carolina before moving to Philadelphia.

It fell on Angelina, in Sarah's absence and after her father's death, to manage the plantation and care for her mother. Angelina tried to persuade her mother to set at least the household slaves free, but her mother refused. In 1827, Sarah returned for a longer visit. Angelina decided she would become a Quaker, remain in Charleston, and persuade her fellow southerners to oppose slavery.

In Philadelphia

Within two years, Angelina gave up hope of having any impact while remaining at home. She moved to join her sister in Philadelphia, and she and Sarah set out to educate themselves. Angelina was accepted at Catherine Beecher's school for girls, but their Quaker meeting refused to give permission for her to attend. The Quakers also discouraged Sarah from becoming a preacher.

Angelina became engaged, but her fiance died in an epidemic. Sarah also received an offer of marriage but refused it, thinking she might lose the freedom she valued. They received word about that time that their brother Thomas had died. He had been a hero to the sisters, for he was involved in emancipating slaves by sending volunteers back to Africa.

Abolitionism

The sisters turned to the growing abolitionist movement. Angelina joined the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, which was associated with the American Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1833.

On August 30, 1835, Angelina Grimké wrote a letter to William Lloyd Garrison, a leader of the American Anti-Slavery Society and the editor of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. Angelina mentioned in the letter her first-hand knowledge of slavery.

To Angelina's shock, Garrison printed her letter in his newspaper. The letter was reprinted widely and Angelina found herself famous and at the center of the anti-slavery world. The letter became part of a widely-read anti-slavery pamphlet.

The Quakers of Philadelphia did not approve of Angelina's anti-slavery involvement, however, nor of Sarah's less radical involvement. At the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Quakers, Sarah was silenced by a male Quaker leader. The sisters decided to move to Providence, Rhode Island, in 1836, where the Quakers were more supportive of abolitionism.

In Rhode Island, Angelina published a tract, "Appeal to the Christian Women of the South." She argued that women could and should end slavery through their influence. Her sister Sarah wrote "An Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States." In that essay, Sarah confronted Biblical arguments typically used by the clergy to justify slavery. Sarah followed that with another pamphlet, "An Address to Free Colored Americans." While these were published by two southerners and addressed to southerners, they were reprinted widely in New England. In South Carolina, the tracts were publicly burned.

Speaking Career

Angelina and Sarah received many invitations to speak, first at anti-slavery conventions and then at other venues in the north. Fellow abolitionist Theodore Weld helped train the sisters to improve their speaking skills. The sisters toured, speaking in 67 cities in 23 weeks. At first, they spoke to all-woman audiences, but then men began to attend the lectures as well.

A woman speaking to a mixed audience was considered scandalous. The criticism helped them understand that social limitations on women were part of the same system that upheld slavery.

It was arranged for Sarah to speak to the Massachusetts legislature on slavery. Sarah became ill and Angelina filled in for her. Angelina was thus the first woman to speak to a United States legislative body.

After returning to Providence, the sisters still traveled and spoke but also wrote, this time appealing to their northern audience. Angelina wrote an "Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States" in 1837, while Sarah wrote an "Address to the Free Colored People of the United States." They spoke at the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women.

Catherine Beecher publicly criticized the sisters for not keeping to the proper feminine sphere, i.e. the private, domestic sphere. Angelina responded with "Letters to Catherine Beecher," arguing for full political rights for women—including the right to hold public office.

Marriage

Angelina married fellow abolitionist Theodore Weld in 1838, the same young man who had helped prepare the sisters for their speaking tour. The marriage ceremony included friends and fellow activists both white and black. Six former slaves of the Grimké family attended. Weld was a Presbyterian; the ceremony was not a Quaker one. Garrison read the vows and Theodore renounced all legal power that laws at the time gave him over Angelina's property. They left "obey" out of the vows. Because the wedding was not a Quaker wedding and her husband was not a Quaker, Angelina was expelled from the Quaker meeting. Sarah was also expelled for attending the wedding.

Angelina and Theodore moved onto a farm in New Jersey and Sarah moved in with them. Angelina's first child was born in 1839; two more and a miscarriage followed. The family focused their lives around raising the three Weld children and on demonstrating that they could manage a household without slaves. They took in boarders and opened a school. Friends, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her husband, visited them at the farm. Angelina's health, however, began to decline.

'American Slavery As It Is'

In 1839, the Grimké sisters published "American Slavery As It Is: Testimony From a Thousand Witnesses." The book was later used as a source by Harriet Beecher Stowe for her 1852 book "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

The sisters kept up their correspondence with other anti-slavery and pro women's rights activists. One of their letters was to the 1852 women's rights convention in Syracuse, New York. In 1854, Angelina, Theodore, Sarah, and the children moved to Perth Amboy, New Jersey, operating a school there until 1862. All three supported the Union in the Civil War, seeing it as a path to end slavery. Theodore Weld traveled and lectured occasionally. The sisters published "An Appeal to the Women of the Republic," calling for a pro-Union women's convention. When it was held, Angelina was among the speakers.

The sisters and Theodore moved to Boston and became active in the women's rights movement after the Civil War. All three served as officers of the Massachusetts Women's Suffrage Association. On March 7, 1870, as part of a protest involving 42 other women, Angelina and Sarah illegally voted.

Death

Sarah died in Boston in 1873. Angelina suffered several strokes shortly after Sarah's death and became paralyzed. She died in Boston in 1879.

Legacy

Grimké's activism had a profound effect on the abolitionist and women's rights movements. In 1998, she was posthumously inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Sources

  • Browne, Stephen H. "Angelina Grimke Rhetoric, Identity, and the Radical Imagination." Michigan State University Press, 2012.
  • Grimké, Sarah Moore, et al. "On Slavery and Abolitionism: Essays and Letters." Penguin Books, 2014.