A Family Divided

 

It was 1868, five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, three years after the end of the war that made it stick and the death of the President who wrote it.

Most of the old prewar abolitionist periodicals had ceased to publish. A few—among them the Anti-Slavery Standard—still circulated among a select list of old subscribers which included Sarah Grimké and her sister Angelina Grimké Weld, whose famous eyewitness account of American slavery had shaken the pillars of the southern Establishment and roused the northern conscience thirty years before.

In the January issue of the Standard, Angelina saw an article signed by a Professor Bowers of Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania, an institution devoted to the higher education of Negro youth. The article reported in enthusiastic terms an oration delivered “by a young man but a few years removed from the chains of servitude, whose erudition and felicity of expression would be remarkable in any student in any college …” The name of the young man was Archibald Henry Grimké.

Angelina had never heard of him, and neither had Sarah. Both were made profoundly uneasy by the coincidence of the name, and—characteristically—Angelina decided to take direct action. On February 15, 1868, she wrote to the young man:

In a recent number of the Anti-Slavery Standard I saw a notice of a meeting at Lincoln University of a Literary Society at which a young gentleman of the name of Grimké deliver’d an address. My maiden name was Grimké. I am the youngest sister of Dr. John Grimké of So. Carolina, & as this name is a very uncommon one it has occurred to me that you had been probably the slave of one of my brothers & I feel a great desire to know all about you.

My Sister Sarah & myself have long been interested in the Anti-Slavery cause, & left Charleston nearly 40 years ago, because we could not endure to live in the midst of the oppressions of Slavery. Will you therefore be so kind as to tell us who you are, whether you have any brothers & sisters —who your parents were etc. etc. …

Angelina showed her letter to her husband and to Sarah, but she did not ask their consent to the sending of it. All three knew what alternative answers to her questions were possible, and what Angelina stood to lose if the worst of those possibilities materialized. She was jeopardizing her physical and mental health—if not her life—by the inquiry. But no one in that household would have dreamed of trying to dissuade Angelina from any course of action she had determined was right.

Angelina was at the time sixty-three years old, a frail, gray gentlewoman with a soft southern voice who taught English and history at Dr. Dio Lewis’ boarding school for young ladies in Lexington, Massachusetts. Mr. Weld also taught at the school. Vigorous and keen even at sixty-five, he enjoyed the fame of having once been the most effective abolitionist orator in the country. It was almost forgotten—and quite hard to believe—that his wife had been equally effective and even more famous (or infamous) in her day. Wendell Phillips, who had been considered the great orator of abolitionism, said of Angelina, “She swept the cords of the human heart with a power that has never been surpassed and rarely equalled.… She won Massachusetts for abolition—and it was never lost again.”

But all that was far in the past. Since the evening—just two days after her marriage—when she spoke in Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia and outfaced the mob that had come to burn it, Angelina had neither addressed nor attended a public meeting. It was accepted by those who knew her history that she had “shattered her nervous system” and worn out her physical strength in the service of abolition, and that the bearing of three children had completed the wreck. She lived a “half life,” a long anticlimax to her brief apocalyptic career, avoiding every sort of strain or excitement at the peril of a “nervous prostration” that would put her to bed in a darkened room for weeks at a time. She had earned the right to—if not a taste for—peace.

Angelina was born in 1805, the youngest daughter of a well-to-do Charleston judge. She was in her early twenties, following the conventional course of a young lady of quality, when the preaching of a Presbyterian evangelist awoke in her a desire for a deeper commitment to the spiritual life. She left her family’s fashionable Episcopalian church and began to seek salvation through good works—in the main, through efforts to alleviate the suffering of Negro slaves. In this she was probably guided by the example of her elder sister Sarah who had already turned against slavery and gone north to join the Society of Friends.

But if Angelina began by following in the footsteps of Sarah (who was twelve years older, and whom she called her “sister-mother”), she soon caught up with and passed her. During the most important years of their adult lives—from about 1830 to 1838—it was Angelina who led and Sarah who followed—on a path that led straight into the heart of the storm.