Catherine H. Birney.

The Grimké Sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké: the First American Women Advocates of Abolition and Woman's Rights online

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"Ask me not," she once wrote to a young person, "if it is expedient to
do what you propose: ask yourself if it is _right_." This question now
came to her in a shape it had never assumed before, and it was hard to
answer. But it was no surprise to her family when she came forth from
that chamber of suffering and announced her decision. She would
acknowledge those nephews. She would not deepen the brand of shame
that had been set upon their brows: hers, rather, the privilege to
efface it. Her brother had wronged these, his children; his sisters
must right them. No doubt of the duty lingered in her mind. Those
youths were her own flesh and blood, and, though the whole world
should scoff, she would not deny them.

Her decision was accepted by her husband and sister without a murmur
of dissent. If either had any doubts of its wisdom, they were never
uttered; and, as was always the case with them, having once decided in
their own minds a question of duty, they acted upon it in no half-way
spirit, and with no stinted measures. In the long letter which
Angelina wrote to Francis and Archibald Grimké, and which Theodore
Weld and Sarah Grimké fully indorsed, there appeared no trace of doubt
or indecision. The general tone was just such in which she might have
addressed newly-found legitimate nephews. After telling them that if
she had not suspected their relationship to herself, she should
probably not have written them, she questions them on various points,
showing her desire to be useful to them, and adds, "I want to talk to
you face to face, and am thinking seriously of going on to your
Commencement in June." A few lines further on she says: -

"I will not dwell on the past: let all that go. It cannot be altered.
Our work is in the present, and duty calls upon us now so to use the
past as to convert its curse into a blessing. I am glad you have taken
the name of Grimké. It was once one of the noblest names of Carolina.
You, my young friends, now bear this _once_ honored name. I charge you
most solemnly, by your upright conduct and your life-long devotion to
the eternal principles of justice and humanity and religion, to lift
this name out of the dust where it now lies, and set it once more
among the princes of our land."

Other letters passed between them until the youths had told all their
history, so painful in its details that Angelina, after glancing at
it, put it aside, and for months had not the courage to read it. When
June came, though far from well, she summoned up strength and
resolution to do as she had proposed in the spring. Accompanied by her
oldest son, she attended the Lincoln University Commencement, and made
the personal acquaintance of Francis and Archibald Grimké. She found
them good-looking, intelligent, and gentlemanly young men; and she
took them by the hand, and, to president and professors, acknowledged
their claim upon her. She also invited them to visit her at her home,
assuring them of a kind reception from every member of her family. She
remained a week at Lincoln University, going over with these young men
all the details of their treatment by their brother Montague, and of
the treatment of the slaves in all the Grimké families. These details
brought back freshly to her mind the horrors which had haunted her
life in Charleston, and she lived them all over again, even in her
dreams. She had been miserably weak and worn for some time before
going to Lincoln; and the mental distress she now went through
affected her nervous system to such an extent that there is no doubt
her life was shortened by it.

The hearty concurrence of every member of the family in the course
resolved on towards the nephews shows how united they were in moral
sentiment as well as in affection. There was not the slightest
hesitancy exhibited. The point touching her brother's shame thrust in
the background by the conviction of a higher duty, Mrs. Weld allowed
it to trouble her no more, but, with her husband and sister, expressed
a feeling of exultation in acknowledging the relationship of the
youths, as a testimony and protest against the wickedness of that hate
which had always trampled down the people of color because they were
as God made them.

On Angelina's return journey, Sarah, ever anxious about her, met her
at Newark and accompanied her home. A few weeks later, writing to
Sarah Douglass an account of the Grimké boys, she says: -

"They are very promising young men. We all feel deeply interested in
them, and I hope to be able to get together money enough to pay the
college expenses of the younger. I would rejoice to meet these
entirely myself, but, not having the means, I intend to try and
collect it somehow. Angelina has not yet recovered from the effects of
her journey and the excitement of seeing and talking to those boys,
the president, etc. When I met her she was so exhausted and excited
that I felt very anxious, and when I found her brain and sight were so
disordered that she could not see distinctly, even striking her head
several times severely, and that she could not read, I was indeed
alarmed. But, notwithstanding all she had suffered, she has not for a
moment regretted that she went. She feels that a sacred duty has been
performed, and rejoices that she had strength for it."

A few weeks later, she writes: "Nina is about and always busy, often
working when she seems ready to drop, sustained by her nervous energy
and irresistible will. She has kept up wonderfully under our last
painful trial, and has borne it so beautifully that I am afraid she is
getting too good to live."

I have no right to say that Angelina Weld suffered martyrdom in every
fibre of her proud, sensitive nature during all the first months at
least of this trial; but I cannot but believe it. She never spoke of
her own feelings to any one but her husband; but Sarah writes to Sarah
Douglass in August, 1869: -

"My cheerful spirit has been sorely tested for some months. Nina has
been sick all summer, is a mere skeleton and looks ten or fifteen
years older than she did before that fatal visit to Lincoln
University. I do not think that she will ever be the same woman she
was before and sometimes I feel sure her toilsome journey on this
earth must be near its close. The tears will come whenever I think of

But not so! the sisters were to work hand in hand a few years longer;
the younger, in her patient suffering, leaning with filial love on the
stronger arm of the older, both now gray-haired and beginning to feel
the infirmities of age, but still devoted to each other and united in
sympathy with every good and progressive movement. The duty, as they
conceived it, to their colored nephews was as generously as
conscientiously performed. They received them into the family, treated
them in every respect as relatives, and exerted themselves to aid them
in finishing their education. Francis studied for the ministry, and is
now pastor of the 15th Street Presbyterian Church of Washington city.
Archibald, through Sarah's exertions and self-denial, took the law
course at Harvard, graduated, and has since practised law successfully
in Boston. Both are respected by the communities in which they reside.
John, the younger brother, remained in the South with his mother.

Mrs. Weld and Sarah still took a warm, and, as far as it was possible,
an active interest in the woman suffrage movement; and when, in
February, 1870, after an eloquent lecture from Lucy Stone, a number of
the most intelligent and respectable women of Hyde Park determined to
try the experiment of voting at the approaching town election, Mrs.
Weld and Sarah Grimké united cordially with them. A few days before
the election, a large caucus was held, made up of about equal numbers
of men and women, among them many of the best and leading people of
the place. A ticket for the different offices was made up, voted for,
and elected. At this caucus Theodore Weld made one of his old-time
stirring speeches, encouraging the women to assert themselves, and
persist in demanding their political rights.

The 7th of March, the day of the election, a terrific snowstorm
prevailed, but did not prevent the women from assembling in the hotel
near the place of voting, where each one was presented, on the part of
their gentlemen friends, with a beautiful bouquet of flowers. At the
proper time, a number of these gentlemen came over to the hotel and
escorted the ladies to the polls, where a convenient place for them to
vote had been arranged. There was a great crowd inside the hall, eager
to see the joke of women voting, and many were ready to jeer and hiss.
But when, through the door, the women filed, led by Sarah Grimké and
Angelina Weld, the laugh was checked, the intended jeer unuttered, and
deafening applause was given instead. The crowd fell back
respectfully, nearly every man removing his hat and remaining
uncovered while the women passed freely down the hall, deposited their
votes, and departed.

Of course these votes were not counted. There was no expectation that
they would be (though the ticket was elected), but the women had given
a practical proof of their earnestness, and though one man said, in
consequence of this movement, he would sell his house two thousand
dollars cheaper than he would have done before, and another declared
he would give his away if the thing was done again, and still another
wished he might _die_ if the women were going to vote, the women
themselves were satisfied with their first step, and more than ever
determined to march courageously on until the citadel of man's
prejudices was conquered.

The following summer, Sarah Grimké, believing that much good might be
accomplished by the circulation of John Stuart Mill's "Subjection of
Women," made herself an agent for the sale of the book, and traversed
hill and dale, walking miles daily to accomplish her purpose. She thus
succeeded in placing more than one hundred and fifty copies in the
hands of the women of Hyde Park and the vicinity, in spite of the
ignorance, narrowness, heartlessness, and slavery which, she says, she
had ample opportunity to deplore. The profits of her sales were given
to the _Woman's Journal_.

Under date of May 25, 1871, she writes: -

"I have been travelling all through our town and vicinity on foot, to
get signers to a petition to Congress for woman suffrage. It is not a
pleasant work, often subjecting me to rudeness and coldness; but we
are so frequently taunted with: 'Women don't want the ballot,' that we
are trying to get one hundred thousand names of women who do want it,
to reply to this taunt."

But the work which enlisted this indefatigable woman's warmest
sympathies, and which was the last active charity in which she
engaged, was that of begging cast-off clothing for the destitute
freedmen of Charleston and Florida. Accounts reaching her of their
wretched condition through successive failures of crops, she set to
work with her old-time energy to do what she could for their relief.
She literally went from house to house, and from store to store,
presenting her plea so touchingly that few could refuse her. Many
barrels of clothing were in this way gathered, and she often returned
home staggering beneath the weight of bundles she had carried perhaps
for a mile. She also wrote to friends at a distance, on whose
generosity she felt she could depend, and collected from them a
considerable sum of money, which, went far to keep the suffering from
starvation until new crops could be gathered. Writing to Sarah
Douglass, she says: -

"I have been so happy this winter, going about to beg old clothing for
the unfortunate freedmen in Florida. I have sent off several barrels
of clothes already. Alas! there is no Christ to multiply the garments,
and what are those I send among so many? I think of these destitute
ones night and day, and feel so glad to help them even a little."

This happiness in helping others was the secret of Sarah Grimké's
unvarying contentment, and there was always some one needing the help
she was so ready to give, some one whose trials made her feel, she
says, ashamed to think of her own. But the infirmities of old age were
creeping upon her, and though her mental faculties remained as bright
as ever, she began to complain of her eyes and her hearing. In August,
1872, she writes to a friend: -

"My strength is failing. I cannot do a tithe of the walking I used to
do, and am really almost good for nothing. But I don't know but I may
learn to enjoy doing nothing; and if it is needful, I shall be
thankful, as that has always appeared to me a great trial."

Notwithstanding this representation, however, she was seldom idle a
moment. She was an untiring knitter, and made quite a traffic of the
tidies, cushion-covers, and other fancy articles she knitted and
netted. These were purchased by her friends, and the proceeds given to
the poor. Soon after she had penned the above quoted paragraph, too,
she copied for the Rev. Henry Giles, the once successful Unitarian
preacher, a lecture of sixty-five pages, from which he hoped to make
some money. His eyesight had failed, and his means were too narrow to
permit of his paying a copyist. She also managed to keep up more or
less, as her strength permitted, her usual visits to the poor and
afflicted; and during the hot summer of 1872 she and Angelina went
daily to read to an old, bed-ridden lady, who was dying of cancer, and
living almost alone. During the following winter Sarah's strength
continued to fail, and she had several fainting spells, of which,
however, she was kept in ignorance. But as life's pulse beat less
vigorously, her heart seemed to grow warmer, and her interest in all
that concerned her friends rather to increase than to lessen. She
still wrote occasional short letters, and enjoyed nothing so much as
those she received, especially from young correspondents. In January,
1873, she writes to an old friend: -

"Yes, dear.... I esteem it a very choice blessing that, as the outer
man decays, the heart seems enlarged in charity, and more and more
drawn towards those I love. Oh, this love! it is as subtle as the
fragrance of the flower, an indefinable essence pervading the soul. My
eyesight and my hearing are both in a weakly condition; but I trust,
as the material senses fail, the interior perception of the divine may
be opened to a clearer knowledge of God, and that I may read the
glorious book of nature with a more heavenly light, and apprehend with
clearer insight the majesty and divinity and capabilities of my own

A few months later, she writes: "My days of active usefulness are
over; but there is a passive work to be done, far harder than actual
work, - namely, to exercise patience and study humble resignation to
the will of God, whatever that may be. Thanks be to Him, I have not
yet felt like complaining; nay, verily, the song of my heart is, Who
so blest as I? In years gone by, I used to rejoice as every year sped
its course and brought me nearer to the grave. But now, though the
grave has no terrors for me, and death looks like a pleasant
transition to another and a better condition, I am content to wait the
Father's own time for my removal. I rejoice that my ideal is still in
advance of my actual, though I can only look for realization in
another life. I know of a truth that my immortal spirit must progress;
not into a state of perfect happiness, - that would have no attractions
for me; there must be deficiencies in my heaven, to leave room for
progression. A realm of unqualified rest were a stagnant pool of
being, and the circle of absolute perfection a waveless calm, the
abstract cipher of indolence. But I believe I shall be gifted with
higher faculties, greater powers, and therefore be capable of higher
aspirations, better achievements, and a nobler appreciation of God and
His works."

The sweet tranquillity expressed in this letter, and which was the
greatest blessing that could have been given to Sarah Grimké's last
years, grew day by day, and shed its benign influence on all about
her. She had long ceased to look back, and had long been satisfied
that though she had had an ample share of sorrows and perplexities,
her life had passed, after all, with more of good than evil in it,
more of enjoyment than sorrow. Her experience had been rich and
varied; and, while she could see, in the past, sins committed, errors
of judgment, idiosyncracies to which she had too readily yielded, she
felt that all had been blest to her in enlarging her knowledge of
herself, in widening her sphere of usefulness, and uniting her more
closely to Him who had always been her guide, and whose promises
sustained and blessed her, and crowned her latter days with joy


Sarah Grimké had always enjoyed such good health, and was so
unaccustomed to even small ailments, that when a slight attack came in
the beginning of August, 1873, in the shape of a fainting-fit in the
night, she did not understand what it meant. For two or three years
she had had an occasional attack of the same kind, but was never
before conscious of it, and as she had frequently expressed a desire
to be alone when she died, to have no human presence between her and
her God, she thought, as the faintness came over her, that this desire
was about to be gratified. But not so: she returned to consciousness,
somewhat to her disappointment, and seemed to quite recover her health
in a few days. The weather, however, was extremely warm, and she felt
its prostrating effects. On the 27th of August another fainting-spell
came over her, also in the night, and she felt so unwell on coming out
of it that she was obliged to call assistance. For several weeks she
was very ill, and scarcely a hope of her recovery was entertained; but
again she rallied and tried to mingle with the family as usual, though
feeling very weak. Writing to Sarah Douglass of this illness, she
says: -

"The first two weeks are nearly a blank. I only remember a sense of
intense suffering, and that the second day I thought I was dying, and
felt calm with that sweet peace which our heavenly Father gives to
those who lay their heads on His bosom and breathe out their souls to
Him. Death is so beautiful a transition to another and a higher sphere
of usefulness and happiness, that it no longer looks to me like
passing through a dark valley, but rather like merging into sunlight
and joy. When consciousness returned to me, I was floating in an ocean
of divine love. Oh, dear Sarah, the unspeakable peace that I enjoyed!
Of course I was to come down from the mount, but not into the valley
of despondency. My mind has been calm, my faith steadfast, my
continual prayer that I may fulfil the design of my Father in thus
restoring me to life and finish the work he must have for me to do,
either active or passive. I am lost in wonder, love, and praise at the
vast outlay of affection and means used for my restoration. Stuart was
like a tender daughter, and all have been so loving, so patient."

She continued very feeble, but insisted upon joining the family at
meals, though she frequently had to be carried back to her room. Still
her lively interest in every one about her showed no diminution, and
she still wrote, as strength permitted, short letters to old friends.
A few passages may be quoted from these letters to show how clear her
intellect remained, and with what a holy calm her soul was clothed. To
one nearly her own age, she says: -

"You and I and all who are on the passage to redemption know that
Gethsemane has done more for us than the Mount of Transfiguration. I
am sure I have advanced more in the right way through my sins than
through my righteousness, and for nothing am I more fervently grateful
than for the lessons of humility I have learned in this way."

To another who was mourning the death of a dear child, she writes: "My
whole heart goes out in unspeakable yearnings for you; not, dearest,
that you may be delivered from your present trials; not only that you
may be blessed with returning health, but that you may find something
better, holier, stronger than philosophy to sustain you. Philosophy
may enable us to _endure_; this is its highest mission; it cannot give
the peace of God which passeth all understanding. This is what I covet
for you. And how can you doubt of immortality when you look on your
beloved's face? Can you believe that the soul which looked out of
those eyes can be quenched in endless night? No; never! As soon doubt
existence itself. It is this - these central truths, the existence and
the love of God, and the immortality of the soul, which rob death of
its terrors and shed upon it the blessed light of a hope which
triumphs over death itself. Oh that you could make Christ your friend!
He is so near and dear to me that more than ever does he seem to be my
link to the Father and to the life everlasting."

As she complained only of weakness, Sarah's friends hoped that, when
the cool weather came on, she would regain her strength and be as well
as usual. But though she continued to move about the house, trying to
make herself useful, there was very little perceptible change in her
condition as the autumn passed and winter came on. Thus she continued
until the 12th of December, when she took a violent cold. She was in
the habit of airing her bed every night just before retiring, turning
back the cover, and opening wide her window. On that day it had
rained, and the air was very damp, but she had her bed and window
opened as usual, insisting that Florence Nightingale asserted that
damp air never hurt anyone. That night she coughed a great deal, but
in answer to Angelina's expressions of anxiety, said she felt no worse
than usual. But though she still went down to her meals, it was
evident that she was weaker than she had been. On Sunday, the 14th,
company coming to tea, she preferred to remain in her room. She never
went down again. Her breathing was much oppressed on Monday and her
cough worse, but it was not until Tuesday evening, after having passed
a distressing day, that she would consent to have a physician called.
Everything was done for her that could be thought of, and, as she grew
worse, two other physicians were sent for. But all in vain: it was
evident that the summons to "come up higher" had reached her yearning
soul, and that a bright New Year was dawning for her in that unseen
world which she was so well prepared to enter.

She lingered, suffering at times great agony from suffocation, until
the afternoon of the 23d, when she was seized with the most severe
paroxysm she had yet had. Her family gathered about her bed, relieved
her as far as it was possible, and saw her sink exhausted into an
unconscious state, from which, two hours later, she crossed the
threshold of Eternity. Her "precious Nina" bent over her, caught the
last breath, and exclaimed: "Well done, good and faithful servant,
enter thou into the joy of thy Lord!"

The gates of heaven swung wide to admit that great soul, and the form
of clay that was left lying there seemed touched with the glory that
streamed forth. All traces of suffering vanished, and the placid face
wore -

"The look of one who bore away
Glad tidings from the hills of day."

Every sorrow brings a peace with it, and Angelina's sorrow was
swallowed up in joy that the beloved sister had escaped from pain and
infirmity, and entered into fuller and closer communion with her
heavenly Father.

She and Sarah had promised each other that no stranger hands should
perform the last offices to their mortal remains. How lovingly this
promise was now kept by Angelina, we must all understand.

The weather was very cold, and in order to give her friends at a
distance opportunity to attend the funeral it did not take place until
the 27th. One of the last requests of this woman, whose life had been
an embodiment of the most tender chanty and the truest humility, was
that she might be laid in a plain pine coffin, and the difference in
price between it and the usual costly one be given as her last gift to
the poor. She knew - divine soul! - that her cold form would sleep just
as quietly, be guarded by the angels just as faithfully, and as
certainly go to its resurrection glory from a pine box as from the
richest rosewood casket. And it was like the sweet simplicity of her
whole life, - nothing for show, all for God and his poor.

Her request was complied with, but loving hands covered every inch of
that plain stained coffin with fragrant flowers, making it rich and

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Online LibraryCatherine H. BirneyThe Grimké Sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké: the First American Women Advocates of Abolition and Woman's Rights → online text (page 21 of 22)