Francis Grimke was born in 1851
, the son of Henry Grimké, a South Carolina
landowner, and Nancy Weston, one of his slave
s. Henry had lived in Charleston
and had three children by his wife, the former Selina Simons, before she died in 1843
; after her death he moved out of the city onto a country plantation
and set himself up with Nancy as a mistress
. There is no evidence that she was force
d or coerce
d 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, Francis, his older brother Archibald 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.
Francis ("Frank") was a particularly rebellious servant. He misbehaved and Montague whipped him mercilessly; he ran away and was returned to his owner, who confined him in the attic. He escaped from the attic and was caught and returned to Montague, who was fed up enough to apprentice Francis to a local workman known for brutality. There Francis was beaten and starved until the start of the Civil War. He ran away, hoping to make it to the Union lines, but was mistaken for a free black and given work by the Confederate soldiers. He made regular visits to Charleston to see his mother, but was caught and imprisoned in the workhouse, sick and starved, for several months, until Montague sold him to the Confederate officer he had been working for.
In February 1865, the Confederacy stopped defending Charleston, and Francis left his master and managed to join Union soldiers on their way to take Charleston. Once back there, 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 older boys in the North; Frank was to work with a surgeon in Massachusetts.
Unfortunately, the reality was that the family he was sent to did not really expect him, and made him sleep in their barn. He found himself a job at a shoe factory until Frances Pillsbury heard about the situation. Embarrassed by having gotten him into it, she found him and Archibald places at Lincoln University in Philadelphia for the 1866-1867 school year. (Frank was just sixteen.) He was sponsored by a philanthropist.
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.
After graduation from Lincoln, Francis tried attending law school, but changed his mind and went to a seminary to become a Presbyterian minister. He became assistant pastor of a church in Washington, D.C. in 1877 and the next year married Charlotte Forten, poet and writer, who was forty-one years old, though her groom was twenty-eight. Frank was a friend of Frederick Douglass and often emphasized Douglass' ideas of black self-improvement and self-reliance in his sermons. He was the minister when Douglass married his white secretary Helen Pitts, a very controversial event. Douglass was surprised at whispers saying that he married Helen because a black woman wasn't good enough for him; Francis was not surprised, but he defended his friend's actions.
Francis was a popular preacher who spoke to black and white audiences, but his words did not seem to have much effect. By 1885, he was burned out in his Washington post, and accepted a job in Jacksonville, Florida. He saw this as both missionary work (since he would be a Presbyterian in an area that was mostly Baptist and Methodist) and a chance to experience conditions in the South. His new congregation was poor and feeling hopeless due to segregation and lack of opportunity; Francis launched a temperance campaign so that those drowning their problems in alcohol might choose other paths. He also spoke throughout the South, and was impressed by Booker T. Washington's Tuskeegee Institute, where he felt that self-reliance was really being put into action (though he disagreed with Washington's views on education). In 1888, Francis went back to Washington to speak to larger audiences about the way the South was going and what could be done about it. At first, he supported Booker T. Washington's 1895 "Atlanta Compromise," in which, as W.E.B. DuBois phrased it, "the South opened to the Negroes the doors of economic opportunity and the Negroes cooperated with the South in political sympathy." This was a controversial position, then and now; many saw it as knuckling under to former slaveholders.
Washington's preferences for industrial schools and jibes at academic education eventually drove DuBois and Grimké away from supporting him. Francis cooperated in founding the American Negro Academy, which proved a gathering place for those discontented with Washington's influence. Francis' sermons became increasingly militant, and other black leaders came to hear. Washington sent private letters to Grimke and tried to maintain a cordial private relationship even as the two factions criticized each other in public. In a sense, Francis' views were the middle ground, neither as accomodating as Washington nor as radical as some leaders of the period.
Francis fought against a reunion between Northern Presbyterians and a branch of the Southern Presbyterian church, since the latter believed in segregated churches. His wife Charlotte died in 1914 after a long illness, but Francis said he was happy to know she was out of her pain. He spent a lot of time with Archibald, and continued to preach and fight racism and segregation until a few months before his death in 1937, and his funeral was attended by most of the NAACP's leadership and the religious leaders of Washington. The District of Columbia named a school after him.
Source: Perry, Mark. Lift Up Thy Voice: The Grimke Family's Journey from Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders. New York: Viking Penguin, 2001.