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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,652


This is the grave of Angelina Grimké.

Born in 1805 in Charleston, South Carolina, Grimké grew up in the planter elite of that state. Her parents were super big time slaveholders and they would never leave that. They were conservative people who wanted their daughters to marry other slaveholders and propagate that class. But their daughters Angelina and Sarah went on a radically different path. And I mean radically different. Sarah was the older of the two, by a full 13 years, and she convinced her parents to be Angelina’s godmother. She became a hugely influential figure on her younger sister. Sarah was plenty rebellious in her own right, but Angelina was even more so. She questioned everything, hated the patriarchal nature of her society, and rejected much about her life.

By 1821, both sisters were on paths rebelling against everything. Sarah had moved to Philadelphia by this time, taken up by her father when he needed better doctors, and she joined the Quakers. Meanwhile, Angelina had already refused to take the Episcopalian Creed of Faith needed for confirmation and had left that church to join the Presbyterians. Angelina drove her parents crazy. She started preaching to slaves. Influenced as well by a new minister in town named William McDowell who had come down from the North, she developed an opposition to slavery, seeing it as an evil institution and openly saying this.

Can you imagine what it takes for someone to grow up in that place and time and come to those conclusions? A remarkable person.

Well, this did not go over well with either Grimké’s family or the larger society. The Presbyterians expelled her in 1829. Since Sarah was a Quaker, Angelina followed that path and started attending the small Quaker meeting in Charleston. Now, Sarah was no organizer. In fact, she was terrible at it. She tried to get other people to follow her, but she was an incredibly condescending person and managed to piss people off personally more than convince them of her ideas. I can relate to this. So it just didn’t work out. Disgusted, she left Charleston for Philadelphia to join her sister and never saw her family in South Carolina again.

Angelina soon decided the Quakers in Philadelphia were not anti-slavery enough. Even Sarah thought she was going too far. She joined the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1835, became close to figures such as William Lloyd Garrison, and dragged Sarah along with her. Garrison thought she was great. Her was a woman who really knew slavery, like really knew it. Unlike nearly ever other hardcore abolitionist, Grimké had grown up with slavery. Her denunciation of it, especially given her extreme language, really hit home in a way another person from Massachusetts did not. This alienated most of the Philadelphia Quakers, who thought her writings were unbecoming a woman. She really didn’t care.

In 1836, Grimké published “An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South.” This was her open letter to her stated audience, urging them to reject the evil that had dominated their lives. Framing her argument in Biblical exegesis, she stated:

Did not Jesus condemn slavery? Let us examine some of his precepts. “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them“, Let every slaveholder apply these queries to his own heart; Am I willing to be a slave—Am I willing to see my wife the slave of another—Am I willing to see my mother a slave, or my father, my sister or my brother? If not, then in holding others as slaves, I am doing what I would not wish to be done to me or any relative I have; and thus have I broken this golden rule which was given me to walk by.

I mean, it didn’t work; probably no southern women were converted, but then that’s not really the point.

Grimké also fought hard for the right of women to participate in abolitionism. It’s worth noting here–many Americans thought abolitionism was nuts, but even most abolitionists thought women’s rights was nuts. That included plenty of female abolitionists. Catharine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, openly criticized Grimké for her public participation. Grimké did not take that lying down. She wrote a series of letters back to Beecher that Garrison ended up publishing as a small book that openly defended the right of women to participate in politics any way they felt appropriate. She wasn’t really talking about suffrage here, though she did reference the idea a couple of times. She did state,

I believe it is the woman’s right to have a voice in all the laws and regulations by which she is to be governed, whether in Church or State: and that the present arrangements of society, on these points, are a violation of human rights, a rank usurpation of power, a violent seizure and confiscation of what is sacredly and inalienably hers.

In 1838, Grimké married Theodore Weld, another leading abolitionist. He is buried here too but will get his own post later. Although Weld supported women’s rights too, she largely disappeared from the public shortly after their marriage. It didn’t quite happen immediately. The next year, they and Sarah published American Slavery As It Is, basically a series of clippings describing the real lives of slaves based on documentary evidence. It was one of the most prominent and important abolitionist books published by whites.

But shortly after that, Grimké largely disappears. No one seems to know why. Some have speculated that she suffered from bad health. She and Sarah ran a school that trained the kids of other abolitionists, including those of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Nothing against running a radical school of course, but that’s a big step away from challenging the entire world for years. They also raised money to pay for the education of the mixed-race children their brother impregnated his slave with. In fact, one of them later became ambassador to Haiti.

Grimké had a stroke in 1874 and died in 1879, at the age of 74. Weld honored her in many ways, including publishing a short biography of her and lauding her public anti-slavery work, reinforcing the idea that he is not the reason she largely disappeared. But again, we will probably never know.

Angelina Grimké is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, Boston, Massachusetts. The grave marker is obviously new. She was buried in an unmarked grave next to Weld, who is very much marked. Evidently, she specifically requested this. Her admirers in the last few years finally put one up. I looked for her earlier in this series but could not find her. Then a grave for her appeared.

If you would like this series to visit other abolitionists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is in Collingdale, Pennsylvania and Elizabeth Margaret Chandler is in Raisin, Michigan. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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