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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 conservative Friends in Angelina’s meeting were outraged. Many believed that her references to “the church” were directed at her own. Even Sarah was shocked at her flouting of the rule which required a Friend to submit any article intended for publication to the elders of his meeting. Angelina was urged to apologize publicly, and to explain that Garrison had printed her letter in the Liberator without her permission. She refused.
Sometime during the next few months, Mrs. Grimké wrote to Sarah and Angelina that she was making her will. Angelina, who had exhausted herself and her mother in a futile attempt to convert the latter to abolitionism, wrote back, begging that all Mrs. Grimké’s slaves be included in the portions to be bequeathed to her two errant daughters. Surprisingly, Mrs. Grimké obliged. Upon her death, four more were to be added to the growing list of Grimké slaves that Angelina, Sarah, and a third sister—Mrs. Anna Frost of Philadelphia—had freed and assisted in setting themselves up in the North.
But these and similar small worthy acts were not what Angelina felt she was “being kept for.” From girlhood on, she had had intimations that some great work was in store for her. That it was to be connected with the abolition of slavery she was now convinced. But just what it was to be had not yet been made clear.
During the summer of 1836, which she spent with a family of Quakers named Parker in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, she was moved to write “An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South.” It was a long, reasoned argument—documented with scriptural references—urging them to act in their own interest and that of their sons, brothers, fathers, and sweethearts while there was yet time.
Elizur Wright, one of the officers of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York, remembered years afterward that
when the storm of public indignation … was black upon us, and we were comparatively only a handful, there appeared … this mild, modest, soft-speaking woman, then in the prime of her beauty, delicate as lily-of-the-valley. She placed in my hands a roll of manuscript, beautifully written. … It was like a patch of blue sky breaking through that storm cloud.
The society published the “Appeal” as a pamphlet of thirty-six pages, priced at six and a half cents a copy (four dollars for 100), and mailed quantities of them to the South. The reaction of the city of Charleston to this message from its Cassandra launched Angelina on what was to be her great work.
In Charleston and other southern cities, the “Appeal” was officially condemned by the postal authorities and publicly burned, but a mere bonfire did not appease Charlestonians. A rumor spread that Angelina intended to return to spend the winter with her mother. The mayor himself called upon Mrs. Grimké and “desired her to inform her daughter that the police had been instructed to prevent her landing… that if she should elude their vigilance and go on shore she would be arrested and imprisoned.” Friends wrote Angelina, warning her that if she defied the mayor’s threat she could not hope to escape personal violence at the hands of a mob.
Here, perhaps, was an opportunity for the martyrdom Angelina had told Garrison she would welcome. She was tempted to try it, “helping thus to reveal to the free states that slavery defies and tramples alike constitutions and laws, and thus outlaws itself.” But she could not bring herself to expose her mother and unsympathetic siblings to the same risks, and decided not to go.
While the clamor attendant upon this semiofficial exile was still audible, it occurred to the leaders of the Anti-Slavery Society that if Angelina could bring about such repercussions by writing to the women of the South, she might do even better by speaking to the women of the North. The society sent her an official invitation to come to New York “to hold meetings in private parlors, with Christian women, on the subject of slavery.”
Angelina showed the invitation to Sarah, with the comment that she felt it to be “God’s call.” Sarah was appalled. She begged her sister to consider: that she had never spoken in public, even in meeting, where women were as free as men to speak when the spirit moved them; that she had always had a “morbid shrinking from whatever would make her conspicuous” and she would be going among strangers, wearing the strange garb of the Quakers and speaking in their strange plain speech; that prejudice against women’s speaking in public was as widespread as prejudice against abolitionism; and, finally, that if she were to act without the sanction of “the Meeting for Sufferings,” her mission might be regarded as “disorderly” and she might be disowned by the Quakers.
Angelina replied that she could not in good conscience ask leave to do something she had already made up her mind to do, that it would be “a grief to me to grieve them [her fellow Friends],” and very unpleasant to be disowned, “but misery to be self-disowned.” Sarah’s other warnings she brushed aside, asserting that if she was indeed meant to do this thing, strength would be granted her. “The responsibility is thrust upon me,” she said. “I cannot thrust it off.”