Sarah Grimké Biography and Facts

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Sarah Grimké Facts

Known for: Sarah Moore Grimké was the elder of two sisters working against slavery and for women's rights. Sarah and Angelina Grimké were also known for their first-hand knowledge of slavery as members of a South Carolina slaveholding family, and for their experience with being criticized as women for speaking publicly
Occupation: reformer
Dates:November 26, 1792 - December 23, 1873
Also known as: Sarah Grimke or Grimké

Sarah Grimké Biography

Sarah Moore Grimké was born in Charleston, South Carolina, as the sixth child of Mary Smith Grimke and John Faucheraud Grimke. Mary Smith Grimke was the daughter of a wealthy South Carolina family. John Grimke, who had been a captain in the Continental Army in the American Revolution, had been elected to South Carolina's House of Representatives and had served as a judge, including service as chief justice for the state.

The family lived during summers in town in Charleston, and the rest of the year on their Beaufort plantation. The plantation had once grown rice, but with the invention of the cotton gin, the family turned to cotton as the main crop.

The family owned many slaves who worked in the fields and in the house. Sarah, like all her siblings, had a nursemaid who was a slave, and also had a "companion": a slave her own age who was her special servant and playmate. When Sarah's companion died when Sarah was eight, Sarah refused to have another companion assigned to her.

Sarah saw her older brother, Thomas -- six years her elder and the second-born of the siblings -- as a role model who followed their father into law, politics and social reform. Sarah argued politics and other topics with her brothers at home, and studied from Thomas' lessons. When Thomas went away to Yale Law School, Sarah gave up her dream of equal education.

Angelina Grimké

The year after Thomas left, Sarah's sister Angelina was born. Angelina was the fourteenth child in the family; three had not survived infancy. Sarah, then 13, convinced her parents to permit her to be Angelina's godmother, and Sarah became like a second mother to her youngest sibling.

Sarah, who taught Bible lessons at church, was caught and punished for teaching a maid to read -- and the maid was whipped. After that experience, Sarah did not teach reading to any of the other slaves.

When Angelina, who was able to attend a girls' school for daughters of the elite, was horrified at the sight of whip marks on a slave boy she saw at school. Sarah was the one who comforted her sister.

Northern Exposure

When Sarah was 26, Judge Grimké traveled to Philadelphia and then to the Atlantic seashore to try to recover his health. Sarah accompanied him on this trip and cared for her father, and when the attempt at a cure failed and he died, she stayed on in Philadelphia for several more months, spending in total almost a full year away from the South. This long exposure to Northern culture was a turning point for Sarah Grimké.

In Philadelphia on her own, Sarah encountered Quakers -- members of the Society of Friends. She read books by the Quaker leader John Woolman. She considered joining this group that opposed slavery and included women in leadership roles, but first she wanted to return home.

Sarah returned to Charleston, and in less than a month she moved back to Philadelphia, intending it to be a permanent move. Her mother opposed her move. In Philadelphia, Sarah joined the Society of Friends, and began to wear simple Quaker clothing.

In 1827, Sarah Grimke returned again for a short visit to her family in Charleston. Angelina by this time was in charge of caring for their mother and managing the household. Angelina decided to become a Quaker like Sarah, thinking she could convert others around Charleston.

By 1829, Angelina had given up on converting others in the South. She joined Sarah in Philadelphia. The two sisters pursued their own education -- and found that they did not have the support of their church or society. Sarah gave up her hope of beoming a clergyperson and Angelina gave up hers of studying at Catherine Beecher's school.

Angelina became engaged and Sarah turned down a marriage offer. Then Angelina's fiance died. Then the sisters heard that their brother Thomas had died. Thomas had been involved in peace and temperance movements, and had also been involved in the American Colonization Society -- an organization to gradually ameloriate slavery by sending volunteers back to Africa, and had been a hero to the sisters.

Anti-Slavery Reform Efforts

Following these changes in their lives, Sarah and Angelina got involved with the abolitionist movement, which moved beyond -- and was critical of -- the American Colonization Society. The sisters joined the American Anti-Slavery Society soon after its 1830 founding. They also became active in an organization working to boycott food produced with slave labor.

On August 30, 1835, Angelina wrote to abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison of her interest in the anti-slavery effort, including mention of what she'd learned from her first-hand knowledge of slavery. Without her permission, Garrison published the letter, and Angelina found herself famous (and for some, infamous). The letter was widely reprinted.

Their Quaker meeting was hesitant about supporting immediate emancipation, as the abolitionists did, and was also not supportive of women speaking out in public. So in 1836, the sisters moved to Rhode Island where Quakers were more accepting of their activism.

That year, Angelina published her tract, "Appeal to the Christian Women of the South," arguing for their support to end slavery through the force of persuasion. Sarah wrote "An Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States," in which she confronted and argued against the typical Biblical arguments used to justify slavery. Both publications argued against slavery on strongly Christian grounds. Sarah followed that with "An Address to Free Colored Americans."

Anti-Slavery Speaking Tour

The publication of those two works led to many invitations to speak. Sarah and Angelina toured for 23 weeks in 1837, using their own money and visiting 67 cities. Sarah was to speak to the Massachusetts Legislature on abolition; she became ill and Angelina spoke for her.

In 1837 Sarah wrote her "Address to the Free Colored People of the United States" and Angelina wrote her "Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States." The two sisters also spoke that year before the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women.

Women's Rights

Congregational ministers in Massachusetts denounced the sisters for speaking before assemblies including males, and also for questioning men's interpretation of Scripture. The "epistle" from the ministers was published by Garrison in 1838.

Inspired by the criticism of women speaking publicly which was directed against the sisters, Sarah came out for women's rights. She published "Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, and the Condition of Women." In this work, Sarah Grimke advocated for both a continued domestic role for women, and the ability to speak out about public issues.

Angelina gave a speech in Philadelphia before a group that included women and men. A mob, angry about this violation of the cultural taboo of women speaking before such mixed groups, attacked the building, and the building was burned the next day.

Theodore Weld and Family Life

In 1838, Angelina married Theodore Dwight Weld, another abolitionist and lecturer, before an interracial group of friends and acquaintances. Because Weld was not a Quaker, Angelina was voted out (expelled) of their Quaker meeting; Sarah was also voted out, because she had attended the wedding.

Sarah moved with Angelina and Theodore to a New Jersey farm, and they focused on Angelina's three children, the first born in 1839, for some years. Other reformers, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her husband, stayed with them at times. The three supported themselves by taking in boarders and opening a boarding school.

The sisters continued to write letters of support to other activists, on women's and slavery issues. One of these letters was to the Syracuse (New York) women's rights convention of 1852. The three moved to Perth Amboy in 1854 and opened a school which they operated until 1862. Among the visiting lecturers were Emerson and Thoreau.

The sisters and Weld actively supported the Union in the Civil War. They eventually moved to Boston. Theodore briefly took up lecturing, despite some problems with his voice.

The Grimke Nephews

In 1868, the sisters learned that their brother Henry had fathered sons in a relationship with a slave. The sisters raised the boys and then saw to their education. Archibald Henry Grimke graduated from Harvard Law School; Francis James Grimke graduated from Princeton Theological School. Archibald's daughter, Angelina Weld Grimke, became a poet and teacher, known for her part in the Harlem Renaissance.

After the Civil War, Sarah remained active in the women's rights movement. By 1868, Sarah, Angelina and Theodore were all serving as officers of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association. In 1870 (March 7), the sisters deliberately flouted the suffrage laws by voting along with forty-two others.

Sarah remained active in the suffrage movement until her death in Boston in 1873.

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