Archibald Grimké was born in 1850
, the son of Henry Grimké, South Carolina
landowner, and Nancy Weston, one of his slave
s. Henry had lived in Charleston and had three children by his wife Selina Simons before she died in 1843
; after her death he moved out of the city and set himself up with Nancy as a mistress
. There is no evidence that she was forced or coerced into the relationship; some historians believe that Henry and Nancy were actually in love and that the move out of the city was designed to prevent gossip about their living as if man and wife.
When Henry died in 1852, Nancy, the two sons already born and the child with whom she was pregnant were treated differently than his other slaves. Most of the slaves, along with the plantation and most of Henry's other property, were sold at auction; Nancy and her children had been specifically willed to Henry and Selina's son Montague. Nancy, Archibald, his brother Francis and their newly born brother John were installed in a small house in Charleston purchased by Henry's sisters Mary and Eliza with the proceeds from the plantation. Nancy raised her sons by taking in laundry and sewing, and sent her sons to a religious school; things were not too bad for a few years, until 1857 when Montague Grimké decided that seven-year-old Archie should come and work as a house slave for him and his new wife. Nancy objected, and Montague had her put in the poor workhouse for a week until she relented. Frank and John were next, and Montague made his half-brothers wear suits of black livery with brass buttons.
Archibald ("Archie") and his brothers did not take kindly to working as slaves. Francis was considered the worst by Montague, but Archie was also described as surly. Once Montague had Archie sent to the workhouse to receive thirty lashes. In early 1862, Archie decided to run away. He did not go to his mother's home; she would have returned her son to Montague rather than risk his being caught and sold away from Charleston. Instead, Archie found refuge with a free black family, with whom he hid for two years, only going out disguised as a girl. He was able to follow the progress of the war in the newspapers and educate himself with books. He was able to return to his mother's home when Union troops occupied Charleston in late 1864.
Once back home, he and his brothers were enrolled in a school run by northern abolitionist Frances Pillsbury, who happened to know Henry Grimké's sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké, who lived in the North. She did not mention these boys with the same last name to the Grimké sisters, but the name and probable relationship probably made Frances pay more attention to them than her other students. Pillsbury arranged positions for the boys in the North; Archibald was to work with lawyer and abolitionist Samuel Sewall in Boston. However, when he arrived, Sewall sent him to another family to learn a trade. Eventually, Frances Pillsbury found him and Frank places at Lincoln University in Philadelphia for the 1866-1867 school year. (Archie was just seventeen.) He was sponsored there by a New York church. Both brothers proved to be excellent students, and a mention of their names in a newspaper article attracted the attention of Angelina Grimké, who wrote and asked about their past. On finding that they were her brother's sons, the Grimké sisters and Angelina's husband Theodore Weld started contributing to both of their nephews' educations -- with money when they could, and with advice always.
Archibald tried several law schools after his graduation from Lincoln, and eventually became one of Harvard University Law School's first black students. Henry Cabot Lodge was a classmate and a friend of his. During his years in Boston, Archie also got to know Lucy Stone, William Lloyd Garrison, and Frederick Douglass. He was taken into the law firm of William Bowditch to help fight for pensions for black Civil War veterans. In 1879, he proposed to Sarah Stanley, a student at Boston University. Her father would not give his blessing to her marriage to a black man (despite the fact that one of his parents was white and possibly three of his grandparents), but the two went ahead and married anyway. Their daughter, Angelina Weld Grimké, was born the next year.
However, the marriage proved too much for Sarah, who first went to spend long visits to her family in Michigan, and in 1883 asked Archibald for a divorce. Archibald was crushed, but agreed, hoping that a fresh start would be possible sometime in the future. Sarah retained custody of Angelina until 1887, when Angelina was sent to her father so that Sarah could go to California. She toured, for some years, lecturing on alchemy, astrology, mysticism, and their relationship to physical health, but committed suicide in 1898 without ever reconciling with Archibald.
In 1883, Archibald also became editor of The Hub, a black-oriented newspaper in Boston. This plunged him into a hotly contested political race. The Republican Party, to which Abraham Lincoln had belonged, had the record of working for black interests, but the Democratic candidate had been outspoken in his advocacy of black people's rights. Archibald wrote many editorials in favor of the Republican side, but was not able to sway the voters; this still made him a major voice in the community. He stayed a Republican for some years, despite the party's drift away from their previous positions, because he knew the Democratic party was not going to abandon its Southern wing, made up of those who had been staunch Confederates. But by 1886, he left the Republicans and, like most of those around him, campaigned and voted for Democratic candidates.
In addition to working for civil rights, Archibald also chaired the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association, affirming his aunts' position that women and black people had similar aims in mind. However, conditions in the South were getting more unpleasant for former slaves as Reconstruction lost its firmness about integrating former slaves into society on an equal basis. Lynchings, "separate but equal" facilities, and blacks with no alternative but sharecropping were a way of life for Southerners, and the situation spawned more militant feelings among many activists as the hopes that came with freedom were stomped on.
Archibald spoke and wrote; in 1890 he debated the paleontologist Edward Cope (who said that racial characteristics of Africans made them and their descendants immune to some "civilizing" influences). He wrote against anti-Semitism, calling Russian pogroms a "crime of international proportions." He published biographies of William Lloyd Garrison and Charles Sumner as part of a Funk & Wagnalls series of biographies. And he campaigned for Grover Cleveland in 1892, in return for which Cleveland appointed him consul to Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic). His brother Francis would take care of fourteen-year-old Angelina while Archibald was out of the country.
Archibald's work representing the U.S. went well; he agreed with the country's president, Ulises Heureaux, that the U.S. should keep its hands off the country and support their self-determination. Archibald was also impressed by the lack of color awareness in the Dominican Republic; apparently people of all races and mixes lived together peacefully. Archibald hoped to work toward that goal on his return to the United States. However, he also had to deal with his rebellious daughter, who was arguing with her uncle and aunt. Eventually, Archibald enrolled his daughter in a Minnesota boarding school. A year later, he returned to the United States when William McKinley came to office and appointed a new consul.
Archie joined the American Negro Academy, which his brother had co-founded. He published several papers, including a history of the attempted Denmark Vesey slave uprising, which contained criticism of well-known leader Booker T. Washington's views. Washington felt that blacks should not be confrontational, while Archibald told a racially mixed audience in 1901 that "scratch the surface of a Republican or a Democrat and you will find race prejudice." W.E.B. DuBois' 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk also criticized Washington's views, and Washington struck back. Archibald participated in two attempts to strip Washington of his power in the Afro-American Council; the first was unsuccessful, and the second caused a huge amount of controversy as radicals like William Monroe Trotter disrupted the Boston meeting and were arrested. Archibald was part of the defense at Trotter's trial, but the reporting in mainstream newspapers all supported the accomodationist position of Washington. Within the black community, though, the opposition to Washington was being listened to.
At the Carnegie Hall Conference in early 1904, Washington was scheduled to give the first address, but he deferred to their host, Andrew Carnegie. Other white leaders spoke after him. This raised the ire of many, who were not here to be told by rich white guys how to gain better lives for black people. Archibald Grimké ended up serving as a mediator between Washington's supporters and his bitter critics, and regained Washington's trust at this time (Washington had originally wanted to invite Francis Grimké and not Archibald). Archibald also published "The Heart of the Race Problem," an article which brought sexual relations and the position of mixed-race people into the discussion, and argued that it was unreasoning hatred which drove the "one drop" ancestry policies which ruled the U.S. categorization of race. This 1906 paper was discussed for decades and had a great influence on future activism.
The increase in lynchings and other race-related conflict over the decade brought former abolitionists back into the picture; they and black leaders got together in 1909 to form the National Negro Conference; Archibald attended and was put on the Committee of Forty, its governing body. Two years later the name of this group was changed to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Archibald worked as a part of the NAACP to oppose congressional legislation outlawing mixed-race marriages, and in 1913 became president of the Washington, D.C. chapter of the organization. In 1919, his work got him investigated by the Woodrow Wilson administration on suspicion of disloyalty, after his protests of death sentences given to black soldiers after a riot in Houston.
Archibald also supported his daughter Angelina's writing and helped her to get her play Rachel produced in Washington, D.C. and then New York. Her fiction and poetry also gained a reputation. Archibald was eventually awarded the Spingarn Medal, the NAACP's highest honor. His health declined and he spent his last two years bedridden before his death in 1930.
Source: Perry, Mark. Lift Up Thy Voice: The Grimke Family's Journey from Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders. New York: Viking Penguin, 2001.