During the 1830s, the anti-slavery movement began to splinter along various lines. While most originally favored a gradual emancipation followed by swift colonization of former slaves, others were growing more radical. The idea of immediate abolition was beginning to grow. The Grimke Sisters, Angela and Sarah, were at the forefront of this movement.
That they were women caused still another rift. Even in such progressive movements as abolitionism, there was a push back against women taking political roles. This rift grew more prominent with the increasing popularity of these two fiery sisters.
Liberty and Equality of Civil Rights
The Grimke family was one of the more prominent slaveholding families in Charleston, South Carolina. How strange it must have seemed, then, that two of the siblings – Angelina and Sarah – left their Southern home to take up the cause of abolitionism in the more receptive North. 1This is basic biography stuff, but it should be noted that Sarah left for the North with her husband in 1819, while Angelina didn’t leave for another decade.
Their migration north had, at first, nothing much to do with slavery. While they left South Carolina over their repulsion of the institution, they took almost no active role in abolitionism until 1835, when William Lloyd Garrison published a letter received from Angelina. From then, their fame only grew – but that fame drew much opposition.
In 1838, when Angelina married fellow-abolitionist Theodore Weld, there was a bit of speculation about how the outspoken Angelina would handle both her duties as a wife and activist. Yet, just two days after the May ceremony, Angelina gave a rousing speech at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Hall.
The abolitionist movement suffered quite a few setbacks in the North when it came to speaking. Time and again, they were denied access to buildings they wished to use for conventions. In this light, they constructed Pennsylvania Hall, a large, three story structure with room enough to hold thousands.
The building was finished on May 14, 1838 – the day of Angelina and Theodore’s wedding. That same evening, the hall was dedicated with the written blessings of President John Quincy Adams. He felt “great satisfaction” in knowing that they had constructed a place “wherein liberty and equality of civil rights can be freely discussed, and the evils of slavery fearlessly portrayed.” 2As quoted in Samuel Webb, History of Pennsylvania Hall (Philadelpha: 1838) 11. Here.
A Proper Respect
The schedule of events ran through the rest of the week, and included various abolitionist seminars and lectures to be delivered by a veritable who’s who of progressives. But even before the first night’s festivities were through, it became clear that not everyone in this brotherly city was in favor of abolition.
That next day, a Tuesday, anti-abolitionist handbills were posted throughout the city urging those who “entertain a proper respect of the Constitution of the Union and the right of property to interfere.” They urged the conservative citizens of Philadelphia to gather at Pennsylvania Hall to demand that the abolition convention immediately disperse.
While the following morning was peaceful enough, the evening session, when Angelina was scheduled to speak, took a decidedly violent turn. When the 3,000 abolitionists showed up at the doors, they found themselves virtually surrounded by an angry mob. They managed to gain entrance into the building for the speeches, all the while keeping the mob at bay.
William Lloyd Garrison was the first to speak. When members of the mob broke into the Hall, his oration came to an end. With this disturbance quelled, Maria Chapman took the podium. While the pro-slavery mob had been more or less tolerant until the end of the Garrison’s address, they could not stomach such a thing as a lady speaking to men. Through her speech, they shouted, stomped their feet, and threw rocks and debris at the building.
Those Voices Without
Angelina Grimke was introduced as Chapman left the stage. With her name, the windows were broken by bricks hurled from the mob. With the windows now open, the sounds of the throng seemed as if they might drown out the speaker. But this was not to be. Angelina, so a mere slip, stood firm at the pulpit and preached to her audience as only a Southerner could do. 3Gerda Lerner The Grimke Sisters form South Carolina (New York, Schocken Books, 1967) 243-244.
“Men, brethren and fathers – mothers, daughters and sisters,” she began, asking “what came ye out to see? A reed shaken with the wind?” She seemed to be addressing both audiences, but was answered loudly by the mass outside.
“Those voices without,” she continued, speaking of the mob, “ought to awaken and call out our warmest sympathies. Deluded beings! ‘they know not what they do.’ They know not that they are undermining their own rights and their own happiness, temporal and eternal.”
For decades the question had been raised – “what has the North to do with slavery?” It was a Southern institution, after all. But here she countered – “Those voices without tell us that the spirit of slavery is here, and has been roused to wrath by our abolition speeches and conventions… This opposition shows that slavery has done its deadliest work in the hearts of our citizens.”
She urged all to “cast out first the spirit of slavery from your own hearts, and then lend your aid to convert the South.”
Happiness and Mirth
Though she had moved away from the South eight years prior, she still considered herself a Southerner – as any Southerner might. Rather than deny her heritage, she used it in her mission.
“As a Southerner I feel that it is my duty to stand up here tonight and bear testimony against slavery. I have seen it – I have seen it. I know it has horrors that can never be described. I was brought up under its wing: I witnessed for many years its demoralizing influences, and its destructiveness to human happiness.
“It is admitted by some that the slave is not happy under the worst forms of slavery. But I have never seen a happy slave. There is a wide difference between happiness and mirth. … The slaves, however, may be, and sometimes are, mirthful. When hope is extinguished, they say, ‘let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'”
What Is a Mob?
As if to punctuate her mention of death, the outside crowd swarmed, throwing more rocks and bricks, smashing more windows, and creating a deafening roar over which Angelina continued.
“What is a mob? What would the breaking of every window be? What would the leveling of this Hall be? Any evidence that we are wrong, or that slavery is a good and wholesome institution? What if the mob should now burst in upon us, break up our meeting and commit violence upon our persons – would this be anything compared with what the slaves endure?
“No, no: and we do not remember them ‘as bound with them,’ if we shrink in the time of peril, or feel unwilling to sacrifice ourselves, if need be, for their sake.”
She was addressing the horde, now growing and pulsing, raising from itself a great noise. With that, Angelina seemed to return to her prepared speech.
“Many persons go to the South for a season, and are hospitably entertained in the parlor and at the table of the slave-holder. They never enter the huts of the slaves; they know nothing of the dark side of the picture, and they return home with praises on their lips of the generous character of those with whom they had tarried. Or if they have witnessed the cruelties of slavery, by remaining silent spectators they have naturally become callous – an insensibility has ensued which prepares them to apologize even for barbarity.
“Nothing but the corrupting influence of slavery on the hearts of the Northern people can induce them to apologize for it; and much will have been done for the destruction of Southern slavery when we have so reformed the North that no one here will be willing to risk his reputation by advocating or even excusing the holding of men as property. The South know it, and acknowledge that as fast as our principles prevail, the hold of the master must be relaxed.”
My Heart Sickened Within Me
Once again there came a commotion, this time setting the abolitionist crowd ill-at-ease. Perhaps they were beginning to feel themselves completely surrounded. Perhaps it was then that it became a siege. They were alone in the city. To Angelina, this seemed fitting. Angelina, when she had lived in the South, felt herself surrounded by slavery.
“Many times have I wept in the land of my birth, over the system of slavery,” she continued. “I knew of none who sympathized in my feelings – I was unaware that any efforts were made to deliver the oppressed – no voice in the wilderness was heard calling on the people to repent and do works meet for repentance – and my heart sickened within me.”
“I wonder when I reflect under what influence I was brought up that my heart is not harder than the nether millstone. But in the midst of temptation I was preserved, and my sympathy grew warmer, and my hatred of slavery more inveterate, until at last I have exiled myself from my native land because I could no longer endure to hear the wailing of the slave.
“I fled to the land of Penn; for here, thought I, sympathy for the slave will surely be found. But I found it not. The people were kind and hospitable, but the slave had no place in their thoughts. Whenever questions were put to me as to his condition, I felt that they were dictated by an idle curiosity, rather than by that deep feeling which would lead to effort for his rescue. I therefore shut up my grief in my own heart. …
“Every Southern breeze wafted to me the discordant tones of weeping and wailing, shrieks and groans, mingled with prayers and blasphemous curses. I thought there was no hope; that the wicked would go on in his wickedness, until he had destroyed both himself and his country. My heart sunk within me at the abominations in the midst of which I had been born and educated. …
“Animated with hope, nay, with an assurance of the triumph of liberty and good will to man, I will lift up my voice like a trumpet, and show this people their transgression, their sins of omission towards the slave, and what they can do towards affecting Southern mind, and overthrowing Southern oppression.”
There is Nothing to be Feared
She continued amidst the cries from outside, encouraging her fellow abolitionists, assuring them that “There is nothing to be feared form those who would stop our mouths, but they themselves should fear and tremble.” She predicted that the nation’s course was changing, that slavery could be defeated by those assembled.
As the riot outside amassed its strength, Angelina again referenced their presence: “Every man and every woman present may do something by showing that we fear not a mob, and, in the midst of threatenings and revilings, by opening our mouths for the dumb and pleading the cause of those who are ready to perish.”
And then to the women she spoke –
“Women of Philadelphia! allow me as a Southern woman, with much attachment to the land of my birth, to entreat you to come up to this work. Especially let me urge you to petition. Men may settle this and other questions at the ballot-box, but you have no such right; it is only through petitions that you can reach the Legislature. It is therefore peculiarly your duty to petition.
“Do you say, ‘It does no good?’ The South already turns pale at the number sent. They have read the reports of the proceedings of Congress, and there have seen that among other petitions were very many from the women of the North on the subject of slavery. This fact has called the attention of the South to the subject. How could we expect to have done more as yet?
“Men who hold the rod over slaves, rule in the councils of the nation: and they deny our right to petition and to remonstrate against abuses of our sex and of our kind. We have these rights, however, from our God. Only let us exercise them: and though often turned away unanswered, let us remember the influence of importunity upon the unjust judge, and act accordingly. The fact that the South look with jealousy upon our measures shows that they are effectual. There is, therefore, no cause for doubting or despair, but rather for rejoicing.”
Having spoke for nearly an hour, voicing her disdain for slavery over the roar of the masses outside, she closed with still another entreat to women:
“When the women of these States send up to Congress such a petition, our legislators will arise as did those of England, and say, ‘When all the maids and matrons of the land are knocking at our doors we must legislate.’ Let the zeal and love, the faith and works of our English sisters quicken ours – that while the slaves continue to suffer, and when they shout deliverance, we may feel the satisfaction of having done what we could.” 4All quotes from the speech taken from The Public Years of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, ed. Larry Ceplair (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989) 318-323. The full speech can be read here.
With Angelina’s speech closing, another woman, Abby Kelley, took the stage. Though she had never spoken in public before, she felt moved to do so. She closed out the night, and both the abolitionists and mob dispersed.
The Destruction of the Hall
The following day both met again. Abolitionist Lucretia Mott addressed the hall. While she and the other women met, several of the trustees of the Hall met with Philadelphia’s mayor. After voicing their concerns over the violent mob, the mayor’s only advice was that the black people should not be allowed to attend. Their presence, he said, would incite the mob to riot.
He was not wrong. With the end of Mott’s speech, the women walked out of the Hall, black and white and arm in arm. At this sight, the horde lost control. Though they did not rush the women, they threw bricks, injuring at least one. 5Mark Perry Lift Up Thy Voice (Viking Press, 2001) 175.
Fearing more retaliation, the abolitionists relented. The mayor promised to disperse the crowd if they handed to him the keys to the building. With this token, the mayor declared to the mob that he had succeeded in shutting down the abolitionists. Now, having drawn this blood, the throng was emboldened. The mayor, either underestimating his own citizens or simply allowing it to happen, announced that he saw no reason to call out the police. With that, he left the scene. The mob, however, did not.
Following a hearty “three cheers for the Mayor,” the crowd fell upon Pennsylvania Hall. The doors were forced open and setting fire to the stage. They turned the gas pipes toward the flames and ignited the entire building. It burned unattended for hours. No fire brigade was called, no buckets were gathered. By dawn, the new building was ashes. 6Webb, 140.
Though the womens rights movement was growing, over the next few years, some male abolitionists fought back. Within a decade, women were not only fighting for their right to vote, but for their rights to be abolitionists.
They would see this fight continue until the end of the Civil War and of slavery. Angelina lectured and wrote letters for another year or so, but entered a stage of semi-retirement due to health reasons. From then, she mostly taught school, but mostly faded from popular memory. Her example as a Southerner who rebelled so early against the South’s institution of slavery remains her most important legacy.
References [ + ]
|1.||⇡||This is basic biography stuff, but it should be noted that Sarah left for the North with her husband in 1819, while Angelina didn’t leave for another decade.|
|2.||⇡||As quoted in Samuel Webb, History of Pennsylvania Hall (Philadelpha: 1838) 11. Here.|
|3.||⇡||Gerda Lerner The Grimke Sisters form South Carolina (New York, Schocken Books, 1967) 243-244.|
|4.||⇡||All quotes from the speech taken from The Public Years of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, ed. Larry Ceplair (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989) 318-323. The full speech can be read here.|
|5.||⇡||Mark Perry Lift Up Thy Voice (Viking Press, 2001) 175.|