Imagine you live in a beautiful mansion, with green lawns, swaying, leafy trees, and pleasant gardens surrounding it. You and your family have everything you need: nice clothes, books, and toys, good food. You don’t have to work for anything. Sometimes your parents make you do chores, but you suspect it’s really just to teach you some lesson about the importance of hard work. After all, you have servants to take care of the hard work.
This was the life that Sarah and Angelina Grimke were born into, alongside their 12 siblings. Sarah was one of the older children in the family, while Angelina was the youngest. Their father, a judge in South Carolina who had fought in the American Revolution, believed in discipline and hard work. He had his children work out in the fields with those servants, to teach them that hard work was important.
What he didn’t count on though, was that Sarah would learn a different lesson from these chores. She didn’t believe her father really valued the hard work of these servants. She knew that he didn’t even pay them. Instead, the hundreds of workers who tended the cotton fields–the source of much of the Grimke family’s wealth–were slaves.
Sarah didn’t just learn that these enslaved workers had a hard job though. She learned that the African Americans working beside her were real people, with minds and feelings, hopes and desires, just like hers. She saw how poorly her family treated them, forcing them to work long days, dealing out harsh punishments, and forbidding the children from going to school.
Sarah decided to try to change things. She taught bible lessons to the enslaved children in the area. She wanted to teach them to read the scriptures for themselves, but her parents wouldn’t let her. Instead, she taught her own servant, a girl named Hetty, to read. They would close the door to her room late at night and quietly go over the lessons in Sarah’s schoolbooks. When her parents found out, they were furious. In early 19th century South Carolina, it was against the law to teach a slave to read, and her father agreed with that law.
Sarah felt trapped. She wanted to become a lawyer, and secretly went about studying her father’s law books. But of course, Judge Grimke didn’t approve of this either. He knew his daughter was smart and capable, but thought, like most people at the time, that women should be wives and mothers.
Sarah wanted to do something different, but as a child, she had very little opportunity to do what she wanted. When her little sister Angelina was born, she thought she saw a chance to change things. She begged her parents to let her be the baby’s godmother, and they gave in. She promised she would always cherish and protect her sister. It was the beginning of a lifelong bond between the two–the sisters were so close that Angelina even called Sarah “mother.”
What Sarah didn’t tell her parents was that she would also make sure that little Angelina not only knew the value of hard work, but the value of the people doing that work.
Angelina turned out to be an enthusiastic student of Sarah’s teachings. She was curious, confident, and sometimes stubborn. Like Sarah, she was upset by the poor treatment of the enslaved people who served their meals, cleaned their house, and worked long hours in the cotton fields.
As Sarah got older, she wasn’t what she could do to help end slavery. She began to lose hope that she could ever change things. She no longer tried to teach slaves to read, because her father had nearly whipped Hetty for her lessons. But she knew deep down that she needed to help. By the time she reached her twenties, her friends and family began to worry that she would never marry. They thought this would turn her into a sad, bitter old woman. They were wrong: Sarah would find meaning and purpose in her life, but not by getting married and having children.
In 1819, Sarah went with her sick father to Philadelphia to get medical treatment. While there, his condition took a turn for the worse. The treatment didn’t help, and he passed away. While he was sick, a group of Christians called Quakers helped Sarah take care of him. They were quiet, simple, and kind people. Sarah became friends with some of them and learned that they also believed slavery was wrong. She stayed with a Quaker family for a time after her father’s death, and returned home with books they’d given her.
When Sarah returned from Philiadelphia, her feelings that slavery was wrong began to grow. Not only that, she missed her life in Philadelphia , and wanted to become a Quaker. So a few years later, she did just that. Her antislavery views had not made her popular in South Carolina, and had even caused her to argue with her family. She returned to Philadelphia in 1821.
In the meantime, Angelina rebelled against her parent’s views. She refused to join her mother’s church, instead joining another church where the minister was against slavery. Unfortunately, many members of the church were in favor of it. Angelina was kicked out after she spoke against slavery at a church meeting.
By 1829, Angelina was also growing frustrated with the way things worked in South Carolina. She decided to join Sarah in Philadelphia, and also converted to Quakerism. The sisters’ faith would guide their thinking about slavery and the role of women in society for the rest of their lives. But just because they were in the north, where slavery was illegal, that doesn’t mean they stayed out of trouble!
Soon after arriving in Philadelphia, Angelina wrote a letter that landed her in hot water with their Quaker friends. The letter was to William Lloyd Garrison, who published an abolitionist newspaper. Abolitionists were antislvery activists. But unlike some activists who believed slavery was wrong and should end someday, the abolitionists thought it should end NOW. Angelina praised Garrison’s work, saying that she believed abolition was a cause worth suffering, even dying for. Garrison published the letter in his newspaper. When Angelina’s fellow Quakers saw it, they were not happy.
Even though the Quakers were against slavery, their rules said that their whole community needed to agree to something before speaking out publically. They also thought that some of Angelina’s words seemed to support violence in the fight against slavery, and Quakers never supported violence. But Angelina stood behind her words, and Sarah supported her. At this point, Sarah was also frustrated with the church–she had tried for years to become a minister, but the church didn’t support her. The sisters left the Quaker church, staying true to their personal beliefs.
Angelina’s letter attracted attention though. The American Anti-Slavery Society invited them to a speaker training in New York City. It was there that Angelina met her future husband, Theodore Weld. Soon, abolitionist groups were contacting the sisters, asking them to speak at meetings and events. At first, they only spoke to audiences of women, but as they became more well-known, they began speaking to audiences of men and women. This was scandalous in the early 19th century. People thought that women shouldn’t speak in public. Ministers chided them, even calling Angelina “devil-ina.”
But the sisters gained a following. Many in the northern United States had never seen slavery close up, so they didn’t really know what it was like. Some northerners thought the abolitionists must be exaggerating how bad it was. Sarah and Angelina had seen it close up, and could tell the doubters just how bad it really was.
Angelina wrote a book aimed at Christian southern women, urging them to do what they could to end slavery.
“I know you do not make the laws,” she wrote, “but I also know that you are the wives and mothers, the sisters and daughters of those who do; and if you really suppose you can do nothing to overthrow slavery, you are greatly mistaken.”
Angelina’s argument was simple, but powerful: The bible teaches that you should treat people how you want to be treated yourself. That’s called the Golden Rule, and it’s part of many other religions as well. No slave owner would say they want to be a slave, so how can they justify enslaving others? She told women to teach slaves to read and free them if they were the owners.
With her book, Angelina angered both pro-slavery southerners, and northerners who believed women belonged at home. Sarah, her wise older sister and protector, knew she had to find a way to support Angelina. So, she wrote her own book!
In her book, Sarah took on her sister’s critics. She argued that women should be given the same education, pay, freedoms and rights as men. She said that both men and women would be better off if women were treated as equals, rather than as inferior to men.
Angelina and Sarah Grimke could have stayed in South Carolina, in that beautiful house with the green grass and swaying trees. They could have married wealthy husbands and lived in luxury. But they realized that choice would harm the enslaved people forced to work their land. They knew they would be partly responsible for that horrible treatment if they stayed.
Happily, both sisters lived long lives, and saw the end of slavery in the United States following the Civil War. It had been a long and difficult path, and there was still a long way to go before all people had equal rights. The Grimke sisters began to help forge that path the moment they stepped out of that big, white mansion and into the wider world.