Sarah "Sally" Moore Grimké was born in 1792 to a rich slaveholding family in Charleston, South Carolina. She was a precocious child who was reading her father's law books in secret by the time she was twelve, and pleading for as much education as possible. Her family forbade her to study Latin and other unladylike topics, but she shared many of her older brother Thomas's other lessons, and her father spent a lot of time discussing important issues with his favorite daughter.

However, Sarah did not absorb everything her family believed. At the age of eleven she was caught teaching her personal slave Hetty to read, which was not only against their beliefs but against the laws of South Carolina (and most other slaveholding states). Both girls were harshly reprimanded. Hetty continued to be Sarah's slave, and when Hetty died of disease a few years later Sarah was heartbroken and refused to have Hetty replaced.

Sarah was also a very religious girl, and taught religion classes to the family's slaves, still encouraging them to look over her shoulder as she read from the Bible despite the trouble over Hetty. The family was devoutly Episcopalian, but Sarah questioned many of their beliefs -- such as the condoning of slavery. Even Sarah's best friend in the family, Thomas, tried to convince her that it was the will of God.

Sarah was left lonely when Thomas went north to college in 1805, but her newly-born younger sister Angelina Grimké filled the gap somewhat. Sarah persuaded her family to let her be the baby's godmother, and really her second mother in this family of thirteen children. Bringing up Angelina gave her a pastime that was approved of by others and comfortable for Sarah, who did not fit into Charleston society well due to her questioning of their common beliefs and her lack of interest in balls and fancy clothes. In 1816, under the influence of a Reverend Henry Kollock, she converted to Presbyterianism, much to her family's dismay.

She was still her father's favorite child, though, and when he became ill in 1819 and went North seeking medical treatment, she was the one chosen to accompany him. Unfortunately, no available treatment could help him, and he died that August from a wasting disease despite Sarah's desperate attempts to help. In the three months between John Grimké's death and Sarah's journey home, she became friends with a Quaker family and examined that religion's beliefs, some of which drew her and others repelled her.

When Sarah arrived home, she found that her brother Thomas was becoming active in the American Colonization Society which wanted to send free slaves back to Africa. Sarah disapproved of sending native-born people out of the country and felt that black and white could live together. Gradually, her dislike of the Southern environment and her increasing affinity with the Quaker ideals led her to decide to move North permanently in 1821. She moved to Philadelphia, joined a Quaker meeting house and adopted their simple clothing, and refused a marriage proposal from widower Israel Morris, the first Quaker she had met. Historians feel that she did probably love him, but felt that marriage would stop her from achieving her goals of becoming a minister, a scholar, and a teacher.

Sarah's younger sister Angelina joined her in Philadelphia and as a Quaker by 1828, and the two lived quietly, attempting to reconcile the organized religion with their personal beliefs. Both would join the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and gradually become distanced from their first Philadelphia friends; by 1836 the two were attending conferences of abolitionists in New York. After this conference, Sarah joined her younger sister, who had already published several anti-slavery essays, by writing and publishing "An Epistle To The Clergy of the Southern States." This was also widely read, as many Southern clergymen would have called for debate about slavery if their parishioners would have accepted it. She used arguments derived from the original languages of the Bible, and said that passages used to justify slavery had been mistranslated.

This work solidified the sisters' name as abolitionists, and they were asked to organize the Female Anti-Slavery Society, a more national abolition group. This organization started out meeting in private homes, but soon attracted large enough audiences that they needed churches or lecture halls, and with this came controversy over whether it was appropriate for women to speak in public. But there was no doubt that they were effective -- they recruited over half the members of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1837. Well-known abolitionist lecturer Theodore Weld was their advisor with his years of experience. Both sisters also published responses to all the criticism of them or the abolitionist movement that appeared in public. Sometimes they went further than the AAS wanted them to, by stating that Americans of any color deserved equal rights. Sarah was more of a helper to Angelina than a public speaker in her own right, but they worked together throughout New England for almost two years.

At the request of a friend, Sarah put aside religious and abolitionist thoughts to publish "Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman" in late 1837. This well-argued feminist tract, as well as some of Angelina's work, worried some of the abolitionists that the Grimkés were abandoning the anti-slavery cause in favor of the women's rights cause. Nonetheless, the sisters toured in support of abolitionism until they were worn out.

In early 1838, after a well-deserved rest, the sisters spoke in Boston. Sarah's speeches did not go over so well as Angelina's, and Theodore Weld wrote to tell her that "the lack of interest in your lectures was not at all for lack of excellent {subject} matter, but for lack of an interesting and happy manner of speaking." Sarah was certainly hurt, but in the future she stuck to publishing her views in print rather than speaking them aloud in public. Despite his being the bearer of bad news, Sarah continued to get along with Theodore, and after he and Angelina married, the three of them lived together for the rest of Sarah's life.

In New Jersey, the three cooperated (with Theodore directing) in assembling American Slavery As It Is (1839). This book was a compilation of the words of Southerners, taken from many sources describing how slaves were treated. Slaveholders' own words on their "discipline" practices were turned against them. The book sold 100,000 copies largely through word of mouth. Sarah also served as an additional mother to Theodore and Angelina's son Charles, and later their other two children. The four moved to a different farm and tried to make farming support them all, as the sisters' inheritance and the residuals for their writing was not enough for everyone.

In 1841, Theodore went to Washington to work with John Quincy Adams to promote abolitionist discussion in Congress. This endeavor was fairly successful, but it was difficult for Angelina and Sarah to run the farm alone. With a second and third child, the family started to need more money. First they took in children as boarders, and then in 1848 turned the effort into a full-fledged school in Belleville, New Jersey. It did not go as well as hoped, but a second school opened in New York flourished after its first few years.

In the 1850s, Sarah dabbled with her sister in spiritualism, and wrote more about the status of women. After the 1848 Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention, this was a more widespread topic of discussion. Much of her work centered on marriage: that women got married only for lack of any other choice for economic survival, and that they were treated unfairly within marriage. Some of her points may have been based on witnessing her sister's marriage, where women were left to raise the children while their father sent advice in letters despite not being familiar with the everyday situation. Both Sarah and Angelina also tried wearing the Bloomer costume, an outfit of a calf-length skirt with trousers underneath, gathered at the ankle. Neither felt comfortable in them, but they continued wearing them until advised by Elizabeth Cady Stanton that their energy was better used on other topics than dress reform.

In 1862, Sarah and the Welds left Eagleswood; they were lecturing and writing in support of Abraham Lincoln and the way the North was fighting the Civil War, and were also dealing with the mental illness of the second Weld child, Theodore Grimke "Sody" Weld. Sody would eventually be put in an asylum. After the war, the household moved back to Massachusetts, worked for Reconstruction policies that gave equal rights to blacks, and taught in a local school for a few years. In 1867, the school burned down, and all three retired. Sarah occupied herself by translating Lamartine's Joan of Arc, which she had privately published.

In 1868, the sisters had a bombshell handed to them; an article in the National Anti-Slavery Standard mentioned two black students named Grimké who had come north from South Carolina. Grimké was not a particularly common name, so Angelina wrote to ask about their background. She probably suspected what turned out to be the case: these students were the sons of Sarah and Angelina's brother Henry and one of his slaves. The sisters accepted these newfound nephews (and a third still in Charleston) as members of the family; they gave Francis and Archibald Grimké money for their studies and a lot of advice.

Sarah spent her final years continuing to work for women's rights; she served with Angelina on the board of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association, she went with other women to try and vote in 1870, and the following year she handed out copies of John Stuart Mill's On The Subjugation of Women to passerby in the park. She died in 1873 with Angelina by her side, and most of her comrades from the abolitionist movement attended her funeral, members of both races linking arms as a symbolic gesture as they walked to the gravesite.

Source: Perry, Mark. Lift Up Thy Voice: The Grimké Family's Journey from Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders. New York: Viking, 2001.

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