The Grimke Sisters and the Indelible Stain of Slavery

The abolitionists have long been portrayed as heroes. A new book views them, and their family, in a different light.

Illustration with overlapping sketches of the generations of the Grimke family
Tejumola Butler Adenuga

“Our family, Black and white.” For the slaveholding class of the old South, it was a familiar trope, one intended to convey both mastery and benevolence, to hide the reality of raw power and exploitation behind an ideology of paternalistic concern and natural racial hierarchy. There was profound irony in the white South’s choice of this image, for the words were far from simply figurative: They revealed the very truths they were designed to hide. One can see in the slave schedules of the 1850 and 1860 censuses the many entries marked “mulatto,” individuals the census taker regarded as mixed race, rather than Black. This was the literal family produced by the slave system before the Civil War—children conceived from the sexual dominance of free white men over enslaved Black women in liaisons that ranged from a single encounter of rape to extended relationships, such as the decades-long connection between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

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Few of these ties were ever acknowledged; white fathers held their own children in bondage, in most cases treating them little differently from their other human possessions. Of the many excruciating and all-but-unfathomable dimensions of American slavery, its manifold assaults on kinship seem among the most inhumane. What was the nature of “slavery in the family,” a designation that today seems both twisted and oxymoronic? How did individuals and families survive its emotional distortions and its insertion of racial subjugation into the most intimate—and precious—aspects of life?

The Civil War diarist Mary Chesnut, born on a South Carolina plantation, once famously remarked of this widespread denial:

The mulattos one sees in every family … resemble the white children. Any lady is ready to tell you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household but her own. Those, she seems to think, drop from the clouds.

Yet that denial had its limits and its exceptions, and the historical record offers occasional glimpses into the tortured dynamics of families “Black and white.” Annette Gordon-Reed’s acclaimed work on Jefferson ranks as one of the most notable of these explorations. But the history of another southern lineage, which Kerri K. Greenidge examines in her new book, The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family, is perhaps even more revealing of the way human bondage shaped and deformed families, as well as the lives of those within them.

The Grimkes of South Carolina were in no sense representative of the South’s slaveholding class. The decision of Sarah and Angelina, two daughters of the wealthy planter John Grimke and his wife, Mary, to confront the horror of slavery and move north in the 1820s to become abolitionists and feminists illustrates in its singularity the difficulties of escaping the grip of a system that compromised every white person connected to it. Two of their mixed-race nephews, Archibald and Francis, sons of their brother Henry and the enslaved Nancy Weston, emerged as major figures in Black political and social life after the Civil War. They were embraced and supported by their activist aunts, who had not known of their existence during their early years of bondage, which included brutal beatings and abuse from their white half brother, another of Sarah and Angelina’s nephews. But the exceptional nature of the story—and of the individuals within it—casts into dramatic relief how the slave system could mold lives across generations.

John Grimke, the patriarch, sired 14 white children and held more than 300 enslaved workers on his extensive properties in the South Carolina Low Country and in Charleston. Sarah, his sixth child, born in 1792, displayed remarkable intellectual gifts from an early age, but such talents were not welcomed in a girl. While her father permitted her to teach herself using the books in his library, he denied her the education provided to her brothers. Sarah described taking a “malicious satisfaction” in defying both her parents and South Carolina law by teaching her “little waiting maid” and numbers of other enslaved workers to read and write. When Sarah’s mother gave birth to her last child, in 1805, Sarah insisted on being named the baby’s godmother. Angelina would be her surrogate daughter.

Thirteen years apart, the two sisters came to share an abhorrence of the slave system on which their family’s wealth and position depended. Angelina was particularly repelled by the institution’s violence—the sound of painful cries from men, women, and even children being whipped; the lingering scars evident on the bodies of those who served her every day; the tales of the dread Charleston workhouse that, for a fee, would administer beatings and various forms of torture out of sight of one’s own household. Both Sarah and Angelina became deeply religious, rejecting the self-satisfied pieties of their inherited Episcopalian faith, but finding in Christian doctrine a foundation for their growing certainty about the “moral degradation” of southern society. In 1821, Sarah moved to Philadelphia and joined the Society of Friends; by the end of the decade, Angelina had joined her.

Philadelphia was a focal point of the growing antislavery movement, and the sisters were swept up in the ferment. Soon defying Quaker moderation on slavery just as they had defied their southern heritage, the Grimke sisters embraced William Lloyd Garrison and what was seen as the radicalism of abolition. In essays appearing in 1837 and 1838, Angelina and Sarah each set out the case for the liberation of women and enslaved people. They joined the Garrisonian lecture circuit, and Angelina developed a reputation as a sterling orator at a time when women were all but prohibited from the public stage. In 1838, Angelina married the abolitionist leader Theodore Dwight Weld in a racially integrated celebration that adhered to the free-produce movement, including no clothing or refreshments produced by enslaved labor. Weld and the sisters shared a household for most of the rest of their lives, and Sarah became a devoted caretaker of Angelina and Theodore’s three children. Their opposition not just to slavery but to racial inequality and segregation, as well as their support for women’s rights, placed them in the vanguard of reform and at odds with many other white abolitionists. With emancipation, they took up the cause of the freedpeople, which they pursued until they died, Sarah in 1873, Angelina in 1879.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the sisters’ understanding of their family changed. Angelina came across a notice in an 1868 issue of the National Anti-Slavery Standard referring to a meeting at Lincoln University where a Black student named Grimke had delivered an admirable address. She wrote to the young man to ask if he might be the former slave of one of her brothers. Archibald replied that he was in fact her brother’s son, offered details of his early life, and told her about his siblings, Francis, known as Frank, and John. Angelina responded that she was not surprised but found his letter “deeply … touching.” She could not change the past, she observed, but “our work is in the present.” She was glad they had taken the name of Grimke; she hoped they might redeem the family’s honor. “Grimke,” she wrote,

was once one of the noblest names of Carolina … You, my young friends, now bear this once honored name—I charge you most solemnly by your upright conduct, and your life-long devotion to the eternal principles of justice and humanity and religion to lift this name out of the dust, where it now lies, and set it once more among the princes of our land.

Thus began a relationship in which the Weld-Grimkes provided financial assistance to Archibald at Harvard Law School and Francis at Princeton Theological Seminary and delivered unrelenting exhortations to prove their excellence and worth, both as Grimkes and as representatives of their race. John, seen by his aunts as less talented and less deserving than his brothers, became estranged from his family. Francis and Archibald achieved notable success—Archibald as a founder and vice president of the NAACP and later the American consul to Santo Domingo, Frank as a prominent member of the clergy and the Black elite of Washington, D.C. Relationships among the white and Black Grimke families were not always easy; Frank in particular found his white relatives oppressively demanding and “unaccustomed to the ways of colored people,” and after a time he declined to accept their support. But it seems telling that Frank nevertheless called his only child Theodora, and Archibald chose to name his daughter Angelina.

The remarkable story of the Grimkes was long neglected by historians, and the way it has come to be told reveals a great deal about how we have chosen to understand the past. Until the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s prompted scholars to look anew at the narrative of Black freedom, abolitionists were regarded as dangerous radicals, to be deplored rather than acclaimed. The likes of Weld and Garrison, not to mention the women who moved outside their assigned sphere to join them in opposition to slavery, were cast as reckless fanatics, endangering the peace of the nation. But amid appreciation for mid-20th-century activists, perspectives shifted on those who had come before.

Abolitionists turned from demons into heroes, and their lives and struggles aroused widespread and sympathetic scholarly inquiry. Similarly, Black-freedom and women’s-liberation movements spawned new fields of Black and women’s history, making the Grimke sisters and their nephews a focus of exploration. The fate of the first modern scholarly treatment of the Grimkes is illuminating. Gerda Lerner, who was a founder of the National Organization for Women and became a superstar in the nascent field of women’s history, wrote her Columbia doctoral dissertation on the Grimke sisters. She published the study as a book in 1967, a moment when the civil-rights movement was well under way but the women’s movement was just emerging. She titled it The Grimké Sisters From South Carolina, with the subtitle, at her publisher’s insistence, Rebels Against Slavery instead of her preferred Pioneers for Women’s Rights and Abolition. “ ‘Women’s rights,’ ” her editor told her, “was not a concept that would sell books.” By 1971, when a paperback edition appeared, the growth of feminism permitted the subtitle she had originally intended, along with a blurb from Gloria Steinem hailing the sisters as “pioneers of Women’s Liberation.”

Drawing on a flush of historical work that included scholarly biographies of the two nephews, Mark Perry in 2001 published a study that considered Black and white Grimkes together. His book explored the lives of “four extraordinary individuals”—Archibald and Frank as well as the sisters. Lift Up Thy Voice: The Sarah and Angelina Grimké Family’s Journey From Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders was unabashedly celebratory—designed to inspire a general audience by underscoring the possibility for racial enlightenment and for connections across the color line. “We see in their troubles our own,” he wrote of the family; “in their triumphs our hope; and in their history, the history of our nation.”

The Grimkes proved fodder for drama and fiction as well. In 2014, the novelist Sue Monk Kidd released The Invention of Wings, a tale that imagined the intertwined lives of Sarah Grimke and an enslaved girl presented to her on her 11th birthday. Oprah designated it a Book Club selection, declaring that it “heightened my sense of what it meant to be a woman—slave or free,” and it debuted at the top of the New York Times best-seller list.

The Grimkes’ story has served as a kind of cultural Rorschach test. We have projected onto it questions that have troubled us about ourselves and our racial past and found in it the promise of transcending the forces that seem to trap humans in the circumstances of their era. We have, as Perry wrote, seen in it our own anxieties, hopes, and history: The sisters have represented the possibility of moral redemption and social transformation; their nephews have embodied the myth and reality of personal uplift as well as social conscience and commitment. All four defied the expectations and limitations of their origins. For more than half a century, as the rights of Black people and women have advanced, we have rediscovered and then lionized the Grimkes.

The latest addition to the Grimke literature marks a new departure. Greenidge’s The Grimkes is not a story about heroes. Instead, it is intended as an exploration of trauma and tragedy. Like the studies of the Grimkes that have preceded it, the book reflects the challenges of our own time, but Greenidge, who is an assistant professor at Tufts, regards these not with optimism about possibilities for racial progress but with something closer to despair. She set out, she declares in her introduction, to write “a family biography that resonates in the lives of those who struggle with the personal and political consequences of raising children and families in the aftermath of the twenty-first-century betrayal of the radical human rights promise of the 1960s.”

Although earlier treatments hailed the sisters’ successes, Greenidge finds these vitiated by Sarah and Angelina’s unacknowledged “complicity in the slave system they so eloquently spoke against.” Sarah’s “dissatisfaction was possible only because of the very privileges denied to the numerous Black people who cultivated her family’s cotton and maintained their household.” The “feel-good stories” of Archibald’s and Francis’s achievements have ignored “the superficialities of the colored elite” of which they became proud members, and have failed to call the nephews to account for their obsessions with skin color and class hierarchies in the Black community.

As the pastor of Washington’s Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, Frank served a Black “professional, political, and business elite” that “shielded their congregation from the Black masses” by means of a rigorous admission process. Reverend Grimke “cultivated a conservative culture of racial respectability” that resulted, Greenidge finds, in the purge of “less well-heeled (and darker-skinned) members from Fifteenth Street’s rolls.” Archibald was unable to transcend his experience as a “fetishized Black wunderkind” during years spent in “neo-abolitionist New England”—at Harvard and as a young lawyer in Boston. His service as the consul to Santo Domingo, often cited as a badge of remarkable accomplishment for one born in slavery, came “at the expense of the African-descended subjects living under American empire.” Greenidge mentions only briefly Archibald’s role in leading the NAACP’s Washington efforts to combat President Woodrow Wilson’s segregation of the federal government. But she notes disapprovingly that despite “his genuine belief in racial equality,” he “neither argued for racial revolution nor criticized the color consciousness, materialism, and social conservatism of his fellow colored elite.” Even as Archibald witnessed the steady escalation of Jim Crow, she contends, he remained too close to white society and white power to effectively resist it.

Greenidge is the author of an earlier, prizewinning study of another leader of the postbellum Black community, William Monroe Trotter, who had an often close but fraught relationship with Archibald Grimke. The two ultimately broke sharply over Trotter’s more radical, less accommodationist stance, disseminated through his paper, the Boston Guardian. Trotter, Greenidge writes, “provided a voice for thousands of disenchanted, politically marginalized black working people” for whom Grimke’s efforts in the “politically moderate camp of colored elite” had little significance. In Greenidge’s portrayal of this conflict, and in her broader interpretation, her allegiances seem clear.

Greenidge leaves the stature of Sarah, Angelina, Archie, and Frank diminished, but she offers an enriched view of the extended Black Grimke family. Foregrounding the nephews’ enslaved mother with a chapter of her own, she provides a valuable treatment of the free Black Forten family—the prosperous Philadelphia clan to which Frank’s wife, Charlotte, belonged—and highlights the crucial role of Black women in the abolitionist struggle. A third-generation antislavery activist, Charlotte served as a teacher of the freedpeople in the Sea Islands, and her two 1864 articles on her experiences there made her the first Black writer to be published in The Atlantic.

The Grimkes begins and ends with a portrait of Angelina Weld-Grimke, the only child of Archibald and his white wife and an often-overlooked figure in the Grimke lineage. Here she serves as an embodiment of the troubled legacy Greenidge seeks to portray. Abandoned by her mother when she was 7, Angelina, who lived until 1958, became a writer, struggling as a mixed-race woman, a Grimke, and a lesbian to confront the realities and tragedies of race in her own and the nation’s heritage. Her best-known work is a play titled Rachel, centered on a brutal lynching that leads the victim’s daughter to decide she will never bring children into such a cruelly racist world. Rachel became a “vehicle for civil rights activism,” but Greenidge emphasizes that the play also “reveals an artist who was as concerned with intergenerational trauma as she was with political protest.” Angelina’s life and work, Greenidge argues, gave expression to the failures—and the “existential rage”—of a Black elite whose narrative of “Black Excellence and racial exceptionalism” had rendered them politically “impotent” and “irrelevant” in the face of the violence of lynching and the imposition of Jim Crow.

At a time when we are confronted once again by an assault on rights long presumed to have been obtained and guaranteed—including voting and affirmative action—Greenidge has found in the Grimkes’ experiences a world chillingly like our own. Just as the promise of emancipation and Radical Reconstruction evaporated into Jim Crow, so we live, she writes, in an era when the heralded accomplishments of the civil-rights movement are being overturned and its promise abandoned. Upbeat stories of Black achievements cannot, she insists, counterbalance the wider reality of enduring oppression and inequality.

In recent years, considerable attention has been directed by scholars of history and literature to the question of slavery’s “afterlife,” to the assessment of its impact long after its legal demise. Greenidge embraces this perspective as she connects the injustices of the present with their roots. She finds their origins embedded not just in the strictures of society and law, but in the human psychology formed in the families that racism has so profoundly shaped. Our nation’s racial trauma lives on. The arc of history bends slowly—or perhaps, Greenidge seems to suggest, hardly at all.

This article appears in the December 2022 print edition with the headline “Slavery in the Family.”

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