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A Family Divided
The Grimké sisters forsook their heritage to fight for abolition. Then, many years later, their brother’s terrible sin came back to haunt them.
April 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 3
The boys graduated from Lincoln in 1870 with the highest honors, Frank as class valedictorian. Both returned for the master’s degree. Archibald then went on to Harvard Law School and Frank to the law department of Howard University in Washington. The Welds not only helped Archibald with tuition money but also with contacts that eventually led to his establishment in a Boston law firm. Sarah made a special effort on Frank’s behalf: in her late seventies she undertook a verse translation of a French work on Joan of Arc to earn a part of his tuition money.
Sarah died at the age of eighty-one in 1873, the year Frank entered Howard; Angelina lived another six years and saw Frank change his field from the law to the ministry, enter and graduate from Princeton Theological Seminary, and go to his first church, the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian in Washington. She did not live to appreciate the tribute of Archibald’s naming his first and only child Angelina Weld Grirnke, in loving memory of her.
In the ministry, Frank found a vocation that fulfilled him completely. He married Charlotte Forten, a remarkable woman who had served as the only Negro teacher in the first freedmen’s schools established by the Union Army on the Carolina coast. The couple had only one child, a daughter, who died young. Frank was associated with his brother in the cause of Negro advancement, but the thrust of his life was in his ministry. Four volumes of his sermons have been collected and published by Carter Woodson, whose editorial comment on the Reverend Mr. Grimké’s career would have delighted both the aunts: “All who knew him were not his followers. He alienated the genuflecting, compromising, and hypocritical leaders of both races… A man of high ideals, who lived above reproach and bore an honorable name even among those who did not agree with him. … Persons who knew him well often referred to him as the Black Puritan…”
Archibald did not find a single vocation, financial security, or much sustained personal happiness. He was intelligent, diligent, and extremely personable, but it took more than that to make a living in the law in Boston in the 1880s and '90s—if one was also a Negro. Archibald undertook a number of other tasks; some paid, others did not. He edited a Negro weekly called The Hub, and wrote occasional articles for the large Boston dailies. The high point of his career was his tour of duty as United States Consul to Santo Domingo (1894-98).
He served from 1903 to 1916 as president of the American Negro Academy and joined William E. B. Dubois in the Niagara Movement and in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which grew out of it.
His marriage (to a white woman) was a failure and left deep emotional scars on him and on his daughter, who was at first taken from him by her mother, then—at the age of seven—returned to him to raise. His financial situation was always so strained as to amount to genteel poverty, and until in his last years he became a member of his brother’s household, he never really had a home. But his long effort was recognized —in 1919, in his seventieth year—by the award of the N.A.A.C.P.’s highest honor, the Spingarn Medal, for distinguished achievement and service to his race.
Angelina’s charge was not laid on her two Negro nephews to no effect. They did indeed do honor to the Grimké name.