Thursday, February 11, 2016

Black History Month: Sarah Grimke

Sarah Grimke wanted to be a lawyer.  If she had been born 150 years later, she probably would have done so.  As it was, the circumstances of her time kept her from the study of law.

But instead of becoming a lawyer, she became something else:  one of the most powerful voices against slavery in the United States.

Sarah Moore Grimke was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on November 26, 1792, one of fourteen children.    She grew up in a wealthy, privileged family; on a plantation where she saw the results of slavery first hand.  But instead of following the path of most girls and young women of that time--marriage, children, and ruling over her own plantation--Sarah Grimke rejected that life.  As a child, she secretly taught slave children to read, in opposition to both her family and state law.

Frustrated by the lack of opportunity for women in Charleston, Sarah made frequent visits to Philadelphia.  She moved there permanently in 1821.  Her sister Angelina followed her several years later.  Both sisters became interested in the abolitionist movement while living in Philadelphia.  They began to speak on the subject to audiences consisting of both men and women--a practice that people considered shocking.  Sarah, in 1836, was reprimanded for speaking to a group of both men and women about abolition.  It was the last straw for her.  She and Angelina moved to New York to work with the abolitionist movement there.

Criticism of both sisters followed them to New York, but Sarah continuted to speak and to write. She would not be silenced.  Because of her background as the daughter of a slaveowner, she had witnessed first-hand what plantation slaves experienced.

In 1836, Sarah wrote and published, "Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States."  In it, she challenged the clergy to understand that slavery was an offense against "divine order".  She said that enslaving a human was the same as treating them as a beast.  This contradicted the characterization of man as being "a little lower than the angels".  She continued with arguments she derived from Scripture, and ended by calling on the church to help end slavery.

The next year, both Sarah and Angelina appeared and spoke at New York's Anti-Slavery Convention. Afterwards, they began a speaking tour in New England.  In Lowell, Massachesetts, they spoke before 1500 people, both men and women, who'd come to hear them talk about the abolition of slavery.  There were Massachusetts clergy who condemned them, quoting Paul, who said that "women should be silent".

In 1838, Angelina married Theodore Weld, who was also an abolitionist, and Sarah went to live with her and her new husband.  They continuted to write and speak about slavery, and also entered into the subject of women's rights.

Sarah, along with her brother-in-law, published a collection of newspaper stories from Southern newspapers.  In American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, they used the actual words of white Southerners as those Southerners described escaped slaves, slave auctions, and other incidents describing the inhumanity of slavery.

Sarah, who never married, worked as a teacher in a school operated by Theodore Weld.  By 1864, with the Civil War nearly over, both Grimke sisters turned their attention to the cause of women's rights.  Sarah died on December 23, 1873, in Hyde Park, Massachusetts.

In comparison with her sister, Sarah was shy and not a dynamic public speaker.  But her experiences and her writings make her a strong voice for the cause of abolition.  She also dared to express herself not only in front of women, but in front of men also.  Sarah Grimke, in speaking for the rights of slaves and the abolition of slavery, was a woman that refused to allow the conventions of the time to silence her.

Sources used:

Lockard, Joe, "An Epistle To the Clergy Of the Southern States," Antislavery Literature.
"Sarah Moore Grimke,"
Berkin, Carol, "Angelina and Sarah Grimke: Abolitionist Sisters," History Now: The Journal of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute.
"Angelina and Sarah Grimke," Young and Brave: Girls Changing History, from National Women's History Museum and Girls Learn International, Inc. website

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