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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
I was somewhat surprised by receiving yours of the 15th inst. I never expected to hear through the medium of a letter from “Miss Angelina Grimké” of anti-Slavery celebrity …
I shall proceed to give you a simple sketch of my history and my connections:
I am the son of Henry Grimké, a brother of Dr. John Grimké, &c therefore your brother. … He was married to a Miss Simons… & she died, leaving three children … After her death he took my mother, who was his slave & his children’s nurse; her name was Nancy Weston. … By my mother he had three children, viz Archibald, which is my name, Francis & John.… He told my mother that he could not free her… “but,” said he, “I leave you better than free, because I leave you to be taken care of.”
Mr. E. M. Grimké [Henry’s son] did not do as his father commanded, and [my mother] was thrown upon the uncharitable world to struggle … alone. By dint of hard labor she kept us from perishing by hunger … until 1860, when Mr. E. M. Grirnke married a second time … & he wanted a boy to wait on him. He informed my mother that she should send me to his house. … Thus he kept on until she was rendered childless. … I afterwards fled from my oppressor. Frank attempted to escape but was retaken & sold. …
[When] Freedom was proclaimed to all men … the disjointed members of our little family were united … the public schools were flung open to all. I … went to one of them and through the intercessions [of Mrs. Pillsbury, the principal] we [he and Frank] were admitted here … My younger bro. is at home with my mother. He cannot get a support, hence he cannot come …
Angelina was devastated, not by the news that she had Negro nephews, but by the guilt of her brother, who had sired children and left them in bondage, and of her white nephew, who had taken advantage of the bequest to enslave and ultimately to sell his own half-brother. She suffered one of her “prostrations”—blinding headaches, double or blurred vision, periods of faintness and dizziness—so severe and protracted that she had to give up her teaching and take to her bed. But by February 29 she had composed her answer to the nephews:
Dear young friends:
I cannot express the mingled emotions with which I perused your deeply interesting and touching letter. The facts it disclosed were no surprise to me. Indeed, had I not suspected that you might be my nephews, I should probably not have addressed you …
I will not dwell on the past: let all that go. It cannot be altered. Our work is in the present and duty calls upon us now so to use the past as to convert its curse into a blessing. I am glad you have taken the name of Grimké. It was once one of the noblest names of Carolina.… It was the grief of my heart that during the late war, not one of the name of Grimké—neither man nor woman—was found on the side of loyalty & freedom, all bow’d down together & worshipped Slavery—“the Mother of all Abominations.”
You, my young friends, now bear this once honored name. I charge you most solemnly, by your upright conduct and your life-long devotion to the eternal principles of justice and humanity and religion, to lift this name out of the dust where it now lies, and set it once more among the princes of our land.
Angelina did not let the matter rest there. As soon as she was able she set out for Oxford, Pennsylvania, to meet her nephews face to face, and to acknowledge them publicly as “the sons of my brother, Henry Grimké, and his wife, Nancy Weston Grimké.” She inquired into their plans and ambitions and learned that they wanted to prepare themselves for professional careers. She offered all the financial assistance she and Sarah were capable of (which was not much at the time), and invited the boys to visit her in Fairmount. Archibald’s daughter, in a memoir of her father, later described the visit:
They went… To the boys this was a great occasion, the greatest in all their lives, and cost what it might, they were determined to live up to it. They were virtually penniless, but each carried a cane, wore a high silk hat which had been made to order and boots that were custom-made. Whatever the aunts and the Welds thought, they were welcomed with wide open arms and hearts and made at home. The simplicity here soon taught them their lesson.