Forgotten Heroes of Southern History: The Grimké Sisters, the Feminists and Abolitionists of Charleston

Sarah Grimké
Sarah Grimké
The Grimké Sisters, Sarah and Angelina, are probably the most famous Southern women in the Southern feminist and abolitionist movements. While the bulk of their adult lives were spent in the more-receptive North, their childhood and early adulthood in Antebellum South Carolina shaped what was to come. No doubt that they were seen then as fanatics, but looking back upon their writings, we can see that they were merely ahead of their time and butting heads with their childhood authorities – as all young adults do.

In future posts, I’ll share some of their speeches and letters, but for now, I’d like to focus on their childhood. I’ll start with what might seem to be a curious source: an excerpt from a young adult book published in 1887 entitled Some Remarkable Women: A Book for Young Ladies.

The Grimké sisters were natives of Charleston, South Carolina. Their father was the Hon. John F. Grimké, who came of good Huguenot stock, and was a judge of the Supreme Court of South Carolina. Their mother could claim a highly respectable Puritan ancestry. Fourteen sons and daughters were born to them, of whom Sarah was the sixth [born in 1792], and Angelina the youngest [1805]. They were High Church Episcopalians. Their home was an abode of wealth and luxury; their social relations were of the most aristocratic type, and their numerous children were reared in the prevailing habits of what was regarded as the best society in Charleston.

The sons were educated for professional life, but following the prevailing customs, the daughters were not taught solid learning, but only those ornamental branches which were requisite to their reputation in society as accomplished and fashionable women. There certainly was nothing, either in their education or surroundings, to beget in them that spirit of self-sacrificing philanthropy which was the distinguishing feature of their womanhood.

Least of all was there any thing to suggest their future enmity to the peculiar institution, inasmuch as their father was a slaveholder, they were served by slaves from their earliest infancy, and were never taught to think there was any taint of sin in claiming and using human beings as property, or, to cite the words of South Carolina law, as “chattels personal.”

Their Huguenot and Puritan blood, however, revealed itself in their early tendency to think and decide for themselves, in their keen sense of natural justice, in their courageous love of truth, and in their tender sympathies with the oppressed. Sarah exhibited her independence by protesting against the superficial studies assigned her, and begging permission to study the classics and the law as her brothers did. But custom forbade this, and she was forced to be content with such instructions as were usually given young ladies of fashion. But neither their imperfect education, nor corrupt public opinion, could prevent the revolt of their tender feelings against the punishments commonly inflicted upon slaves, and also against the utter ignorance in which those poor creatures were designedly reared.

Catherine Birney 1Sarah’s close friend and first biographer – where much of this passage takes its inspiration. tells us that Sarah, when only five years old, after seeing a slave woman cruelly whipped, sobbed as if heart-broken, and then ran from her nurse to the wharf and begged the captain of a vessel to take her from a city in which the whipping of women was permitted. The same tenderness of heart was shown by Angelina, who, on one occasion, stole out to the slave quarters with a bottle of oil with which to soothe the wounds of one of her father’s slaves who had been whipped that day.

Thus the natural tenderness of both girls caused them to hate slavery long before their moral judgments had taught them the sinfulness of slaveholding. It was the germ of their subsequent devotion to the cause of human freedom. Never, perhaps, were two sisters more closely bound to each other by sympathy and affection than were these Grimké sisters. Their strong and life-long sisterly love had its origin in somewhat exceptional circumstances.

Sarah was twelve years old when Angelina was born. The presence of her baby-sister begot in her girlish heart a tenderness akin to that of a mother for her child. She begged to be permitted to stand at the baptismal font as godmother to the infant. This strange request, after many refusals, was finally granted, and this girl of twelve gave the promise required by the Episcopalian ritual, to train her infant sister in the ways of Christian duty. This promise, usually made without serious thought or purpose, had so much meaning for the juvenile godmother, that she carried it to God, with tears and prayers, asking fitness for the duty she had engaged to perform. Years after she wrote of her feelings at the time, saying: “0, how good I resolved to be, how careful in all my conduct, that my life might be blessed to her.”

And it was; for never was sister-love more true, devoted, and lasting than in Sarah Grimké. And never was it more warmly reciprocated than by Angelina. 2Daniel Wise Some Remarkable Women: A Book for Young Ladies (Cincinnati: Cranston and Stow, 1887) 193-195. Though the writing is dated, the facts seem to check out with other biographies of the Grimkés.


Next I’ll relate two similar stories that happened a few decades apart, the first to Sarah, the second to Angelina. They show not only the sisters’ character, but how so often the older sibling takes the brunt of the parental punishment, paving the way for the younger to have it quite a bit easier.

In her diaries, Sarah tells of an 1804 event that happened before Angelina was even born, when at the age of twelve she taught Hetty – a slave given to her by her father – to read. Unfortunately, that diary has neither been published nor digitized (an incredible shame). Parts of it have, however, been quoted in various biographies, so we’ll turn to those.

Judge Grimké, his family and connections, were all High-Church Episcopalians, tenacious of every dogma, and severe upon any neglect of the religious forms of church or household worship. Nothing but sickness excused any member of the family, servants included, from attending morning prayers, and every Sunday the well-appointed carriage bore those who wished to attend church to the most fashionable one in the city. The children attended Sabbath-school regularly, and in the afternoon the girls who were old enough taught classes in the colored school.

Here, Sarah was the only one who ever caused any trouble. She could never be made to understand the wisdom which included the spelling-book, in the hands of slaves, among the dangerous weapons, and she constantly fretted because she could only give her pupils oral instruction. She longed to teach them to read, for many of them were pining for the knowledge which the “poor white trash” rejected; but the laws of the State not only prohibited the teaching of slaves, but provided fines and imprisonment for those who ventured to indulge their fancy in that way. So that, argue as she might, and as she did, the privilege of opening the storehouse of learning to those thirsty souls was denied her. 3Catherine Birney The Grimké Sisters: Sarah and Angelina Grimké, the First Woman Advocates of Abolition and Women’s Rights (Bost: Lee and Shepard, 1885) 10-11.

“My great desire in this matter would not be totally suppressed, and I took an almost malicious satisfaction in teaching my little waiting-maid at night, when she was supposed to be occupied in combing and brushing my long locks.

“The light was put out, the keyhold screened, and flat on our stomachs, before the fire, with the spelling-book under our eyes, we defied the laws of South Carolina.” 4Sarah Grimké Diary 1827. As quoted in Gerda Lerner The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina (New York: Shocken Books, 1967) 23.

These lessons ended abruptly when her father discovered what was happening. Hetty was harshly scolded, barely escaping a whipping – probably at Sarah’s insistence, while Sarah was called before her father and lectured about how serious of a crime she had committed. She vowed to never teach Hetty again – and kept her word in the strictest sense. She also vowed that she would do everything in her power to educate other slave children.

This, according to biographer Gerda Lerner, was a pivotal moment in Sarah’s young life. She now understood that “her attempts to help the slaves were useless; she was as helpless as they were. Her father, master and judge, would brook no defiance.” 5Gerda Lerner The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina (New York: Shocken Books, 1967) 24.

Of course, the rest of Sarah’s life would be filled with activism, effecting real change in the lives of both women and slaves.

Angelina Grimké
Angelina Grimké

Turning now to her sister, Angelina, we learn of a similar event that was met with a rebellion fueled by ingenuity rather than the pure spunk of a twelve year old.

In a memorial written for Angelina’s funeral, her husband, Theodore Dwight Weld, shared a story from 1826, when Angelina was twenty-one and started a school for the family slaves, finding a loophole in South Carolina law that her older sister had not.

So, thenceforward, she attended the preaching of Drs. Waddel and McDowell, of the Presbyterian Church. There she had found a vital truth, unseen till then, except as a faint glimmer, and that not as a thing of personal concernment.

“Surely,” she thought, “those who proclaim it cannot fail to live it. In such a church, I can find a home.” So, asking no counsel of man, thither she went. After interviews with the minister and the session of the church, she was cordially welcomed to its membership, took at once a class of young ladies in its Sunday-school, and threw into the work her whole soul.

As from Sunday to Sunday she taught her pupils, and pondered the means of culture lavished upon them, in place of the fines and imprisonment denounced by the laws against all who should teach the slaves even the alphabet, the contrast smote her with horror. Upon exploring further, she found that no law forbade their verbal moral instruction. So, going to her mother, she asked if she might have their slaves come into the house every morning, and hear her read the words of Christ and talk about them.

Her mother replied with much feeling, “You may, my child, and I will come and sit with you.” The slaves hailed with joy the good news. At the hour, her mother and sisters came and sat by her. Eagerly, at the glad signal, in came the slaves. After reading from the Sermon on the Mount, she spoke to them of the simple truths of the gospel, then kneeled and prayed with them. This morning worship with the slaves she continued daily when at home, while she remained in Charleston. Their simple words of gratitude for her sympathy and love were constant and full of heart. 6Theodore Dwight Weld In Memory: Angelina Grimké Weld (Boston: Press of George H. Elliss, 1880) 36-37.

Though the writings of the sisters are fairly available, most are not published online. Many are sequestered to high priced volumes for the dusty untouched shelves of professional academics. This is a sad truth, especially since most of the speeches and pamphlets were given out freely or on the cheap. Nevertheless, I’ll try to gather a few and post them when I can.

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Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

2 thoughts on “Forgotten Heroes of Southern History: The Grimké Sisters, the Feminists and Abolitionists of Charleston

  1. The Grimke sisters are great history. This book should be digitized, and hopeful, someday that will happen. Sue Monk Kid wrote a novel about the Grimke sisters called “The Invention of Wings”. It is a great read. Even more interesting is Sue Monk Kids story behind the novel. She is a Georgia woman who was visiting the Brooklyn Museum when she saw a tribute to the Grinke Sisters. She was surprised to find out that these famous abolitionist woman were from South Carolina, yet she had never heard of them. She said that when she lived in Charleston, she would drive by the historic Grimke home without knowing it. And this is very well educated, smart woman. That speaks volumes to how history is taught in different parts of this country (and the world). Even today, I am amazed at how many people never heard of Henry David Thoreau, a man who influenced on both Gandhi and MLK. But here in America, South Carolina and Yale University prefer to honor Americas’ most famous racist, South Carolina’s homegrown John Calhoun (sorry George Wallace – even you can’t stand with this guy). Thanks for highlighting these great woman.

    1. Thanks! The diaries, etc are all publicly available in various collections, I think. They’re just waiting for someone to digitize them. They should all be public domain by this point.

      I’ve been meaning to read Kids’ book about them, and eventually I’ll get around to it. In the meantime, Gerda Lerner’s few books on them are great reading.

      And I couldn’t agree more – less Calhoun, more Thoreau!

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