Unveiling the Complicated Family Story of Anti-Slavery Activists

In a celebrated new book, Kerri Greenidge writes about a pair of white sisters lauded for their abolitionist efforts, who had an uneasy relationship with their Black nephews

There weren’t many Southern women in the 1830s who spoke out against slavery—but Sarah and Angelina Grimke did. They had moved north to Philadelphia from Charleston, South Carolina, and became strong voices in the fight for justice in anti-slavery circles from then until the Civil War. They have been celebrated ever since for their outspokenness, but the more complicated story of their family is rarely told.

One of their brothers, Henry, was an unrepentant South Carolina slaveowner, and fathered three sons by an enslaved woman. Two of them, Archibald and Frank Grimke, went on to become members of the post-Civil War Black elite, famous in their own day.

But the connections between the sisters and their nephews was uneasy. Coming from a slave-holding background, the sisters didn’t see themselves as part of that world. It was one thing for the sisters to plead the cause of abolition, and another for them to treat Blacks as equals.

Kerri Greenidge, Mellon Assistant Professor in the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora, tells their story—and sets the scene with detailed descriptions of the not-exactly-free life of Blacks in the North—in her new book The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family.

The New York Times called the book “a consummate cartography of racial trauma, demonstrating, through an adept use of the family’s letters, diaries and other archival materials, how the physical and emotional abuses of slavery traveled through generations long after abolition.” The New Yorker said Greenidge’s “real concern is exploring the limits of white sympathy, a story vividly animated by her nuanced biographical portraits.”

Greenidge, who is co-director of the African American Trail Project at the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts, is also author of Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter.

Tufts Now talked with Greenidge about the Grimkes, their lives and challenges, and the deep complications of history and race in America.

Tufts Now: How did you decide to write this story about the Grimkes?

Kerri Greenidge: I was fascinated by them because traditionally historians have looked at them as two separate stories. They’ve looked at it as the story of the Grimke sisters, told as these triumphant, selfless white women who sacrificed their all to join the anti-slavery movement. The second story is about the Black Grimkes, seeing them through this lens of racial respectability and exceptionalism.

I really wanted to use the historical archive to complicate the story that we tell about this family, and how we look at race and slavery and their legacies generally.

What drove Sarah and Angelina Grimke to oppose slavery, when 99% of their peers in South Carolina would never think to do that?

The older sister, Sarah, genuinely recognized from a very early age the brutality of slavery from seeing it up close in Charleston. Angelina also saw how slavery existed in the city, and was very close to Sarah, who was 12 years her senior.

I think that they both genuinely believed that slavery was a sin, that slavery was this horribly violent and damaging system—but that’s far from seeing African-American people as equals.

The argument in the book wasn’t that they were somehow insincere. It makes it even more tragic that they were sincere, and yet they could still treat the African American people they knew with such a combination of disdain and distance.

Anthony Horowitz’s book Midnight Rising showed how John Brown was one of the very few white abolitionists who treated Black people as equals. What allowed him and maybe a few others to see Black people as equals versus other white abolitionists who did not?

I think John Brown really saw himself as part of the world that he wanted to reform. But the Grimke sisters came from slave-holding background, and they didn’t see themselves fundamentally as part of the world that they inhabited.

They were part of this very elite class, and particularly even for Charleston’s elite. Their father helped write the laws in Charleston. They grew up thinking slavery was wrong, but they never saw themselves as part of the society that they wanted to reform.

Also, the Grimke sisters went into anti-slavery with the impression that they were somehow creating this world of anti-slavery as they were arriving in Philadelphia, but the Black community had already been doing this work for almost a century.

So even though they saw themselves from this evangelistic, self-righteous point of view, which a lot of white abolitionists did, it could often preclude them from seeing themselves as part and parcel of the system of enslavement as it existed.

You write about white mob violence against free Blacks in Philadelphia in the 1830s. What was it like for free Black people in the North prior to the Civil War?

Free African Americans have always existed since African-descended people came to the United States. I tried to portray in the book how these free Black communities had built institutions and support for themselves at a time when the country considered all African American people to be enslaved.

To be a free Black person in Philadelphia in the early 19th century was to encounter those two seeming opposites: on one hand being free people who could earn their own money and raise their families, but on the other, living in a slave society in which, particularly in Philadelphia, they were constantly subject to either white violence or exclusion from receiving all the benefits of having a free life.

The violence that free Black people faced in the North is something that people now tend to ignore—and not just violence, but the way that can tax a community and a family.

There were people like the Fortens, a successful, free Black family in Philadelphia—can you talk about them?

James Forten was the wealthiest sail maker in antebellum America before he died in the 1840s, and through his wealth, helped the wider Black community. When white mobs burned down Black people’s homes and churches, he loaned them money so they could rebuild. There were no adequate public schools for Black children, so he put money and resources into that.

One consequence of that was that when Forten died, he left a huge amount of debt, and little money for his family.

While in Philadelphia after the Civil War, Sarah and Angelina discovered their Black nephews living not far away from them. How did they react to these young men, who they had never met before?

Angelina and Sarah picked up a newspaper in 1868 and saw the names of their Black nephews graduating from the all-Black school, Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania. That’s how they said they encountered their Black nephews for the first time.

From there they went and met the nephews and agreed to pay for their continuing study at Lincoln, and then pay for further study. But the Grimke brothers experienced harshness and a judgmental attitude from the Grimke sisters that was really unforgiving and showed an inability to understand where their nephews were coming from.

All the historical evidence points to the brothers having experienced horribly traumatic and violent enslavement at the hands of the Grimke sisters’ brother and then his white nephew. Archibald and Frank basically were starving and beaten before they made their way North, with absolutely no resources when they got to school, even in comparison to the other Black students there. The Grimke sisters basically blocked all of that out. They didn’t have enough empathy within themselves for that aspect of the story.

How did Archibald and Frank experience this reaction?

Archie created a whole narrative surrounding the sisters as being saints who had rescued them, helped pay for him to attend Harvard Law School. That’s the story he told himself, even as the historical evidence would say that it was much more complicated than that.

Frank took it slightly differently. He wrote in many of his letters about the ways in which the sisters completely discounted the Grimke brothers’ mother, an enslaved woman named Nancy Weston, even though Nancy had been enslaved to the Grimkes most of her life, and knew the sisters when she was enslaved in the Grimke household.

The Grimke sisters never really responded to the fact that the boys’ mother was disabled physically, had no money, and was still stuck in Charleston at the end of the Civil War, when there was a rise in violence, particularly against Black women. The Grimke sisters would become angry when the brothers asked about their own mother.

Frank basically said that after he left Lincoln University, he wasn’t going to rely on his aunts for financial support. He went to Princeton Theological Seminary and paid for that himself.

Did their relationship with their white aunts affect their relationship to other Black people?

They definitely absorbed from their white relatives a way of talking about and reflecting upon their relationship to fellow Black people. When Archie was American consul to the Dominican Republic, the way he talked about and referred to Dominicans was often eerily similar to the way the Grimkes sisters talked about Black people. And similarly the way Frank talked about working class and poorer African Americans in D.C. often mirrored the way that his aunts talked about Black people.

I would say that the legacies of enslavement in that relationship with the Grimke sisters was very damaging in how they looked at Black people and looked at their communities.

You write in the book that Sarah and Angelina were “burdened by their lifelong tendency to see Black people either as a cause to be won or a sin for which they must atone.”

If you’re somebody of a more privileged class preaching to those who you think are “lower class” about what they should be doing—even coming from a very liberal place—what are the long-term effects of not listening to the very people you’re claiming to help? The very issue you are claiming to help doesn’t end up getting solved, because you’re not listening to the people you think you are serving.

And this patronizing attitude still happens now, of course. How can people who want to advance equality do that in an effective way that overcomes these patterns from the past?

I think it’s a good question. I would say listen to the people who are most affected by the worst excesses of our time. As one of my colleagues says, when you think you’ve listened enough, listen again, and then support that group of people in the ways that they say is most helpful. If that means backing off in terms of leading the effort and instead giving financial support, then write a check.

The Grimkes were very privileged, and they did do a lot of work in terms of “the Black community.” And yet they couldn’t listen to what that community needed in many ways, arguing that they knew best. Which of course wasn’t true.

The Grimkes and your previous book Black Radical are both serious academic books that are also aimed at the general public. Was that intentional on your part to try to write history that’s for everyone?

Yes, because I think that people should read history. Before I became an academic, I worked with the Museum of African American History, as one of their historians.

One of the things I noticed then was that there’s a hunger and a need for this history. History is story. Hearing my grandparents, who did not go beyond high school, tell these fabulous stories about politics and such, I think influenced how I do scholarship.

I want to make sure I would want to read what I’m writing. The best historians can write for an academic audience, and at the same time write stories that everybody can read. In this case, it’s the story that compels them to rethink slavery and its aftermath in very different ways.


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