Two sisters, daughters of a prominent South Carolina plantation owner, slaveholder, and judge; are my #6 Greatest American(s). Their names are Sarah Grimke (1792-1873) and Angelina Grimke (1805-1879).
At age 5 Sarah saw a slave being whipped and tried to board a steam boat so she could live in a place where there was no such thing as slavery. A few years later Sarah tried to teach her slave companion and “maid” to read. Sarah said: “The light was put out, the keyhole screened, and flat on our stomachs, before the fire, with the spelling book under our eyes, we defied the laws of South Carolina.” Sarah was caught and punished. Sarah was very bright but she was forbidden a formal education by her father because she was a girl.
Thirteen years younger, Angelina grew up being cared for by Sarah. She also was very sensitive to the pain and injustice being suffered by the slaves on their plantation.
As a young adult Sarah moved to the North and Angelina eventually followed her. There the sisters began to work and speak against slavery. Angelina wrote an anti-slavery letter to William Lloyd Garrison which was published in “The Liberator”, the major abolitionst newspaper. This opened the door for the sisters to become the first female speakers for the Anti-Slavery Society.
As they traveled through out the North sharing their first-hand experiences of the cruelty of slavery, their lectures received violent criticism because it was considered improper (politically incorrect) for women to speak out on political issues. The sisters had started out speaking up for the human rights of others but wound up also fighting for their own rights as women.
In 1838, Angelina presented an anti-slavery petition signed by 20,000 women to the Massachusetts legislature becoming first women in American history ever to address a state legislature. Afterward she said: “Our Lord and Master gave me His arm to lean upon and in great weakness my limbs trembling under me, I stood up and spoke.”
This is part of what Angelina said that day: “I stand before you as a Southerner, exiled from the land of my birth by the sound of the lash and the piteous cry of the slave. I stand before you as a repentant slaveholder. As a moral being I feel I owe it to the suffering slave and to the deluded master, to my country and to the world to do all that I can to overturn a system of complicated crimes.”
Both sisters boldly wrote and published widely distributed books against slavery, for women’s rights, and against racism. Sarah wrote: “Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States” and “Letters on the Equality of The Sexes”. Angelina wrote: “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South” and “Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States”.
After the Civil War the sisters discovered that they had three “colored” nephews. Their brother, Henry Grimke had fathered three sons by his slave, Mary Weston. The sisters invited their nephews north and acknowledged them as family. They helped them financially and had a close relationship with two of them, Francis Grimke and Archibald Grimke — both of whom became famous civil rights leaders. Archibald even named his daughter “Angelina”.
Learn more about little know great Americans in my book: Off the RACE Track–From Color-Blind to Color-Kind.