As a southern woman who became a leader of the abolitionist movement, Angelina Grimké attracted widespread notoriety by agitating publicly against slavery before mixed audiences of men and women, thus bringing into question traditional views of women’s roles. Angelina was born into a prominent South Carolina slaveholding family. In 1829 she followed the lead of her elder sister Sarah, who wanted a more intellectually active life than that traditionally available to upper-class southern women, and moved to Philadelphia and converted to Quakerism.
Over the next six years, Angelina Grimké became interested in the abolitionist movement by reading William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator and attending meetings of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. In 1835 she wrote Garrison a letter praising his adherence to the principle of immediate emancipation and referring briefly to her own experience with slavery in the South. Garrison published the letter in the Liberator, and as a consequence, Grimké received and accepted invitations to speak before women’s discussion groups. She also wrote the pamphlet An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South (1836), which implored southern women to use their influence upon men to end slavery immediately. Although well received among abolitionists, the work caused an uproar in the South where U.S. postmasters judged it seditious and destroyed copies of it.
A passionate and animated speaker, Grimké drew large crowds to her public lectures. In 1836 she and her sister began acting as unofficial agents for the American Anti-Slavery Society, traveling throughout New York and New England raising funds and boosting society membership. Grimké’s nine-month speaking tour in 1837 broke attendance records, but she also attracted criticism from those within the society who did not like women challenging traditional gender roles by speaking before mixed audiences. In addition, she was criticized for her position that it was as important to end northern prejudice as it was to end southern slavery. Early in 1838, Grimké gained further notice when she gave evidence to a committee of the Massachusetts legislature about the horrors of slavery, as she was the first woman ever to testify before a legislative body in the United States.
On May 14, 1838, Grimké married fellow abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld, and the marriage marked the end of her active involvement with the abolitionist cause. Her last significant contribution to the movement was a book, which she jointly authored with Weld and her sister, entitled American Slavery as It Is (1839). In this compilation of southern newspaper editorials and runaway notices, the authors hoped that the slaveholders’ cruelty would speak for itself, and, indeed, the book became one of the antislavery movement’s most influential works.
Although Grimké’s involvement with the abolitionist movement was brief (1835-1839), she played a significant role in two ways. First, she had personal knowledge of slavery’s cruelty, which made many New Englanders sympathetic to the antislavery cause. Second, her success as a public speaker heightened tensions within the abolitionist movement regarding women’s proper roles and civil rights for blacks. Her stance on these two issues brought into question traditional notions of gender and race, sparked a series of controversies that contributed to a split in the abolitionist movement, and thus altered the course of the antislavery effort in the United States.
Near the end of their lives, the Grimké sisters once again sparked controversy by openly accepting as their nephews Francis and Archibald Grimké, the sons of their brother Henry and his slave Nancy Weston. The sisters provided the boys with support throughout their young adulthoods. Both men went on to become prominent figures in the African American community and outspoken advocates of civil rights as followers of W. E. B. DuBois.
See also: An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South (1836); Garrison, William Lloyd; Grimké, Sarah Moore; The Liberator; Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society; Weld, Theodore Dwight.
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