Lift Up Thy Voice: The Grimke Family's Journey from Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders

By Paine, Christopher M. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Lift Up Thy Voice: The Grimke Family's Journey from Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders


Paine, Christopher M., South Carolina Historical Magazine


Lift Up Thy Voice: The Grimke Family's Journey from Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders. By Mark Perry. (New York: Penguin Putnam, 2003. Pp. xxiii, 406; $15.00, paper.)

Two of the most important antebellum abolitionists in the United States were born and raised in Charleston. Sarah and Angelina Grimke were born into upper-class Carolina privilege, yet both chose to move north as adults to crusade against the evils of slavery rather than to acquiesce in the life of their Carolina peers. The sisters' story is familiar to most students of antebellum history, but Mark Perry goes beyond the usual accounts of the Grimke sisters in two important ways. First, he places them in the context of the American abolition movement. More importantly, he extends the family's story by examining the lives of two black Grimkes, Francis and Archibald. Perry includes Sarah and Angelina's black nephews (whom they met after the war and encouraged in their education and activism) to show two generations of activists for racial equality. His approach reminds the reader that the abolition movement's story ended with neither the Civil War nor with Reconstruction.

Perry begins by explaining Sarah Grimke's journey from a wealthy Charleston family to a modest Quaker household in Philadelphia. He carefully details Sarah's two outstanding character traits: independence and introspection. Even as a girl, Sarah refused to conform to the standard role which Carolina society expected of a dutiful daughter. Despite the discomfort of her parents, they only infrequently limited her attempts to learn and tolerated her deviations from the family's denominational preference. Like many nineteenth century Americans, Sarah took religion very seriously, constantly worrying about the morality of her actions and the correctness of her beliefs. In 1805, when Sarah was thirteen, her youngest sister, Angelina, was born; Sarah performed so much of Angelina's care that her sister began calling her "Mother." Angelina unsurprisingly would follow her older sister's refusal to accept family and social norms, but in a different way. Perry argues that Angelina's religious beliefs made her sure of her rectitude, unlike her constantly unsure sister.

Both sisters' beliefs led them to conclude that slavery was immoral. Unlike other southerners who believed similarly in the early 1800s, they acted on their convictions. Sarah and later Angelina taught some of the Grimke slaves to read and write and imparted religious lessons in defiance of custom and local law. The sisters also advocated racial equality, spurning the popular solution of colonization for former slaves. Combined with their unusual religion and behavior (such as when Sarah adopted the Quaker mode of dress), Charleston became increasingly uncomfortable. Sarah moved to Philadelphia in 1821 (Angelina, only sixteen, remained home) to join a Quaker meeting; Angelina followed her sister north eight years later.

Because religion motivated their relocation to Philadelphia, unsurprisingly Sarah and Angelina spent their first years there focused on their beliefs and behavior. Their antislavery convictions became more prominent when Angelina wrote a letter of support to William Lloyd Garrison, who published it in his newspaper, The Liberator. Both Angelina and Sarah soon became caught up in the abolition movement. Religious belief compelled them to join antislavery groups and to write pamphlets attacking the institution (Angelina's was aimed at southern women, Sarah's at southern ministers). …

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