Friday, February 12, 2016

Black History Month: Angelina Grimke Weld

The threatening crowd screamed in outrage.  At one point, a rock shattered a window, scattering glass over the floor.  Undaunted, the speaker kept going, refusing to be shouted down by a mere mob.

The next day, the same mob burnt down that building--which had only been open for four days--while police and firemen watched.

The speaker, Angelina Grimke Weld, had been married all of two days, and would soon be expelled from her Quaker religion because she married a Presbyterian.  It was only part of the price she paid for daring to be a woman that spoke out against slavery.

Angelina Grimke was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 20, 1805, the youngest of fourteen children.  She and her sister Sarah were daughters of a wealthy plantation owner, yet, instead of remaining in their upper-class lifestyle, they chose to oppose slavery.

Angelina moved to Philadelphia in 1829, several years after Sarah.  She joined the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and began writing to newspapers, protesting slavery.  She gained the attention of area abolitionists, and because she and Sarah knew about slavery from first-hand observation, they asked the sisters to join their cause.

When Sarah and Angelina began speaking in public, people were outraged because they dared to speak in front of mixed-gender crowds.  In the 1830's, people were shocked to see a woman do such a thing.  After Sarah was reprimanded for speaking at a Quaker meeting about the subject of abolition, she and Angelina packed up and moved to New York.

In 1835, she wrote a letter to prominent abolitionist and publisher William Lloyd Garrison, encouraging him to keep fighting for the cause.  She told him to stand firm and never surrender. Without asking permission, he published her letter in his periodical, The Liberator.  That was the day her career as a public figure began.

Angelina was embarrassed by her letter's publication, but apparently, her devotion to the cause was stronger. In 1836, she published Appeal to the Christian Women of the South.  It was a work that not only discussed how slavery hurt blacks, but also showed how it hurt white women and the family.  Southern society tolerated men having sex with their female slaves, and Angelina wrote of the result:  "the faces of many black children bore silent testimony to their white fathers."  She spoke from experience; her own father had sired both white and black children.  When the letter was published, postmasters seized and destroyed copies and hostility rose against Angelina and Sarah.  They would never again visit home.

Sarah and Angelina devoted the year of 1837 to traveling and speaking.  Increasingly, they spoke to audiences that were made up of both men and women.  They set themselves apart by debating with men, which startled people.  On July 17, 1837, two men challenged Angelina Grimke to a debate over both slavery and a woman's right to a public voice.  She accepted.  An eyewitness account described Angelina as "calm, modest, and dignified," and that she "with the utmost ease brushed away the cobwebs, which her puny antagonist had thrown her way."

She married a fellow abolitionist, Theodore Weld, on May 14, 1838.  It was two days later that Angelina spoke at the newly opened Pennsylvania Hall, holding the audience's attention despite the angry crowd outside.  The next day, that angry mob, infuriated by the site of blacks and whites attending together, torched the building.

Angelina never spoke in public again.  But she did continue to write and publish, encouraged by her husband and sister.  She also taught school and had three children.  She lived to see the end of slavery, dying of a stroke on October 26, 1879.

By writing, speaking, and daring to step out of the box of "conventional behavior", Angelina Grimke Weld paid the price of being persecuted and ostracized.  Because she was willing to pay the cost, she contributed to the success of the abolitionist movement in the United States.

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