Angelina Grimke and her sister Sarah were the white daughters of South Carolina slaveholder John Faucheraud Grimke and his cruel wife, Polly. When the sisters fled the South and, as Quakers, sought redemption for their family’s racist ways, they became celebrated 19th-century abolitionists and women’s rights activists, blazing a trail through the turbulent antebellum Northeast with speeches, writings and protests against America’s “original sin” of slavery. This story looms large in the popular American imagination, but in The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family, Tufts University historian Kerri K. Greenidge reveals a counternarrative—one of a complex, conflicted Black and white Grimke family that was often at odds with their country, their own progeny and themselves.
Following the Civil War, white mobs in Charleston, Philadelphia and New York City torched Black homes and churches, lynching people with impunity as they fought to keep the institution of slavery alive. Greenidge unflinchingly relays the horrors that Black Americans endured before the Civil War and during the days of Reconstruction. She also reveals that, during this latter period, the Grimke sisters overlooked their own Black nephews until the boys’ mother, Nancy, who was enslaved by the Grimkes’ brother, begged for help.
The stories of Nancy’s sons—Archie, Frank and John—and their entanglements with their famous white aunts in the postbellum North are rich with ironies. The aunts’ often ambivalent support helped Archie through Harvard Law School and Frank at Princeton Theological Seminary, but there were odd strings attached. For example, the young men had to abstain from flashy clothes and avoid any familiarity with the “negro masses” struggling beneath them. Later, as part of the “colored elite” of the Gilded Age, Archie mingled with Black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. But these relationships did little to influence Archie’s work as consul to the Dominican Republic and his racist treatment of Black workers there.
Greenidge bookends this history with moments from the life of another Angelina Grimke in the 20th century: Archie’s daughter, Angelina Weld Grimke, who was abandoned by her white mother. Family members despaired over her immodest dress and, later, her impassioned voice as a celebrated playwright and poet. Her stories, as well as her ancestors’, belong in the wider Grimke history. Now, thanks to Greenidge’s provocative and well-written account, they are.