In May 2015, the Friends of the Library at the College of Charleston hosted a day honoring Sarah and Angelina Grimké, the progressive 19th century Charlestonian sisters renowned for their feminist and abolitionist activism. Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Invention of Wings, a fictionalized account of Sarah Grimké’s life, returned to the setting of her novel to join our partners in celebrating the lives of these great women. Partners included: the South Carolina Historical Society, the Sophia Institute, the Charleston Library Society, the Preservation Society of Charleston, and Grimké Sisters Walking Tours.

The Friends of the Library unveiled a historic marker outside the childhood home of the Grimké Sisters. Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. and Sue Monk Kidd took part in a public dedication ceremony on the George Street side of the Blake-Grimké House at 321 East Bay Street, Charleston, the current site of Pierce, Herns, Sloan & Wilson, LLC.

Sue Monk Kidd with book

Sue Monk Kidd signed copies of her book, The Invention of Wings, a fictionalized account of the lives of Sarah Grimké and Hetty “Handful” Grimké, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston. Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday in 1803, when she is given ownership of ten-year-old Handful, who is to be her handmaid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty-five years, as both strive for lives of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.

To read more about Sue Monk Kidd, click here.

So, who were the Grimké Sisters? 

Grimke Sisters

Sarah Grimké (1792 – 1873) and Angelina Grimké Weld (1805 – 1879) were among the first American reformers to compare the condition of women to the plight of enslaved Africans and to call for an end to exploitation based on race and gender. Born into the Charleston elite, the sisters would eventually leave South Carolina and travel to the North where they became leaders in the abolitionist and feminist movements.

Their strong faith enabled Sarah and Angelina Grimké to challenge deeply held notions of race and gender. When opponents justified the contemporary racial and gender hierarchy with references to Scripture, the sisters replied with Biblical verses undermining their arguments. When chivalry was employed to warrant the submission of women and blacks to white men, the sisters cited Christ’s teachings on the equality of all souls before the Maker. They used the format of sermons and the rhetoric of preachers to appeal to the hearts and minds of their contemporaries. As they themselves frequently commented, their abolitionism and feminism were religiously inspired, and it was this sense of divine mission that gave them the courage to criticize the patriarchal assumptions of antebellum American society.

What is most striking about the Grimkés’ leadership was their willingness to move beyond the societal and religious constraints of their times. They challenged the justifications for slavery employed by Southern politicians and clergy (and most of their own family). They challenged their fellow abolitionists on their unwillingness to allow women full participation in the work of the anti-slavery societies. They challenged the racism inherent in the existence of a “colored bench” at the Fourth and Arch Street Quaker Meeting House and of the back-to-Africa policies of the American Colonization Society.

Special Collections at the College of Charleston holds the Grimké Family Papers, 1678-1977, which contain materials from both Sarah Moore Grimké and Angelina Grimké Weld in addition to papers from their ancestors and descendants. Highlights of the collection include the Revolutionary War papers of their grandfather, John Paul Grimké; the papers of their brother, Thomas Smith Grimké, documenting temperance, politics and education; and letters from the Grimké sisters discussing deaths in the family.

Text by: Amy McCandless, PhD, College of Charleston