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Angelina Weld Grimké (February 27, 1880 – June 10, 1958) was an American journalist, teacher, playwright and poet who came to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance. She was one of the first women of color to have a play publicly performed. Her unpublished works reveal many love poems to women. African American poet Angelina Weld Grimké, the grandniece of abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimké, in the last decade of the nineteenth century formed a romantic friendship but later obscured her love for women. As a member of the middle class, Grimké's friendship with her school friend Mamie Burrill followed the pattern common among white middle-class women. In 1896 Burrill wrote to Grimké: “Could I just come to meet thee once more, in the old sweet way, just coming at your calling, and like an angel bending o'er you breathe into your ear, ‘I love you.'” Grimké, later that year, expressed her own longing: “Oh Mamie if you only knew how my heart beats when I think of you and it yearns and pants to gaze, if only for one second upon your lovely face.”
The Henry Street Settlement of Lillian Wald supported an early community theatre, the Neighborhood Playhouse, where Angelina Grimké’s anti-lynching play, Rachel, was put on in 1917 – the first time a theatre in the US had presented a play by a Black author with a Black cast in front of an integrated audience.
Angelina Weld Grimké was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1880 to a biracial family. Her father, Archibald Grimké, was a lawyer and also of mixed race, son of a white planter. He was the second African American to have graduated from Harvard Law School. Her mother, Sarah Stanley, was European American from a Midwestern middle-class family. Information about her is scarce.
Grimké's parents met in Boston, where he had established a law practice. Angelina was named for her father's paternal white aunt Angelina Grimké Weld, who with her sister Sarah Moore Grimké had brought him and his brothers into her family after learning about them after his father's death. (They were the "natural" mixed-race sons of her late brother, also one of the wealthy white Grimké planter family.)
When Grimké and Sarah Stanley married, they faced strong opposition from her family, due to concerns over race. The marriage did not last very long. Soon after their daughter Angelina's birth, Sarah left Archibald and returned with the infant to the Midwest. After Sarah began a career of her own, she sent Angelina, then seven, back to Massachusetts to live with her father. Angelina Grimké would have little to no contact with her mother after that. Sarah Stanley committed suicide several years later.
Angelina's paternal grandfather was Henry Grimké, of a large and wealthy slaveholding family based in Charleston, South Carolina. Her paternal grandmother was Nancy Weston, an enslaved woman of mixed race, with whom Henry became involved as a widower. They lived together and had three sons: Archibald, Francis and John (born after his father's death in 1852); they were majority white in ancestry. Henry taught Nancy and the boys to read and write. Among Henry's family were two sisters who had opposed slavery and left the South before he began his relationship with Weston; Sarah and Angelina Grimké became notable abolitionists in the North. The Grimkés were also related to John Grimké Drayton of Magnolia Plantation near Charleston, South Carolina. South Carolina had laws making it difficult for an individual to manumit slaves, even their own children born into slavery. Instead of trying to gain the necessary legislative approval for each manumission, wealthy fathers often sent their children north for schooling to give them opportunities, and hoping they would stay to live in a free state.
Angelina's uncle, Francis J. Grimké, graduated from Lincoln University, PA and Princeton Theological Seminary. He became a Presbyterian minister in Washington, DC. He married Charlotte Forten. She became known as an abolitionist and diarist. She was from a prominent family of color in Philadelphia who were strong abolitionists.
From the ages of 14 to 18, Angelina lived with her aunt and uncle, Charlotte and Francis, in Washington, DC and attended school there. During this period, her father was serving as US consul (1894 and 1898) to the Dominican Republic. Indicating the significance of her father's consulship in her life, Angelina later recalled, "it was thought best not to take me down to [Santo Domingo] but so often and so vivid have I had the scene and life described that I seem to have been there too."
Angelina Grimké attended the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics, which later developed as the Department of Hygiene of Wellesley College. After graduating, she and her father moved to Washington, D.C. to be with his brother Francis and family.
In 1902, Grimké began teaching English at the Armstrong Manual Training School, a black school in the segregated system of the capitol. In 1916 she moved to a teaching position at the Dunbar High School for black students, renowned for its academic excellence, where one of her pupils was the future poet and playwright May Miller. During the summers, Grimké frequently took classes at Harvard University, where her father had attended law school.
Around 1913, Grimké was involved in a train crash which left her health in a precarious state. After her father took ill in 1928, she tended to him until his death in 1930. Afterward, she left Washington, DC, for New York City, where she settled in Brooklyn. She lived a quiet retirement as a semi-recluse. She died in 1958.
At the age of 16, Grimké wrote to a friend, Mary P. Burrill:"
I know you are too young now to become my wife, but I hope, darling, that in a few years you will come to me and be my love, my wife! How my brain whirls how my pulse leaps with joy and madness when I think of these two words, 'my wife'"
Two years earlier, in 1903, Grimké and her father had a falling out when she told him that she was in love. Archibald Grimké responded with an ultimatum demanding that she choose between her lover and himself. Grimké family biographer Mark Perry speculates that the person involved may have been female, and that Archibald may already have been aware of Angelina's sexual leaning.
Analysis of her work by modern literary critics has provided strong evidence that Grimke was lesbian or bisexual. Some critics believe this is expressed in her published poetry in a subtle way. Scholars found more evidence after her death when studying her diaries and more explicit unpublished works. The Dictionary of Literary Biography: African-American Writers Before the Harlem Renaissance states: "In several poems and in her diaries Grimké expressed the frustration that her lesbianism created; thwarted longing is a theme in several poems." Some of her unpublished poems are more explicitly lesbian, implying that she lived a life of suppression, "both personal and creative.”
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