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Sarah Moore Grimké (November 26, 1792 – December 23, 1873) was an American abolitionist, writer, and member of the women's suffrage movement. Born and reared in South Carolina to a prominent, wealthy planter family, she moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the 1820s where she became a Quaker. Her younger sister Angelina Grimké joined her there and they both became active in the abolition movement. The sisters began to speak on the abolitionist lecture circuit, among a tradition of women who had been speaking in public on political issues since colonial days, including Susanna Wright, Hannah Griffitts, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Anna Dickinson. They recounted their knowledge of slavery firsthand, urged abolition, and also became lawyers for women's rights.
Sarah Grimké – her parents sometimes called her "Sally" – was born in South Carolina, the sixth of 14 children and the second daughter of Mary Smith and John Faucheraud Grimké. Their father was a rich planter, and an attorney and judge in South Carolina.
Sarah's early experiences with education shaped her future as an abolitionist and feminist. Throughout her childhood, she was keenly aware of the inferiority of her own education when compared to her brothers' classical one. Although her family recognized her remarkable intelligence, she was prevented from obtaining a substantive education or pursuing her dream of becoming an attorney, as these goals were considered "unwomanly." She was educated by private tutors on subjects considered appropriate for a young southern woman of her class, including French, painting with watercolors, playing the harpsichord, and doing embroidery. Her father allowed Sarah to study geography, history and mathematics from the books in his library, and to read his law books; however, he drew the line at her learning Latin.
Sarah's mother Mary was a dedicated homemaker and an active member in the community. She was a leader in Charleston's Ladies Benevolent Society. Mary was also an active Episcopalian and consequently often devoted herself to the poor and to women incarcerated in a nearby prison. Mary's beliefs were rigid; in addition, her many charitable activities kept her from developing affectionate relationships with her children.
Feeling confined in her role, Sarah developed a connection to her family's slaves to an extent that unsettled her parents. From the time she was twelve years old, Sarah spent her Sunday afternoons teaching Bible classes to the young slaves on the plantation, an experience she found extremely frustrating. While she wanted desperately to teach them to read the scripture for themselves, and they had a longing for such learning, her parents prohibited this, as teaching slaves to read was illegal. Her parents also said that literacy would only make the slaves unhappy and rebellious, making them unfit for physical labor. Teaching slaves to read had been prohibited since 1740 in South Carolina.
Sarah secretly taught Hetty, her personal slave, to read and write, but when her parents discovered the young tutor at work, the vehemence of her father's response proved alarming. He was furious and nearly had the young slave girl whipped. Fear of causing trouble for the slaves themselves prevented Sarah from undertaking such a task again. Years afterward, she reflected on the incident, writing "I took an almost malicious satisfaction in teaching my little waiting maid at night, when she was supposed to be occupied in combing and brushing my locks. The light was put out, the keyhole screened, and flat on our stomachs before the fire, with the spelling book under our eyes, we defied the laws of South Carolina."
Sarah's brother Thomas went to Yale Law School in 1805. During his visits back home, Thomas continued teaching Sarah new ideas about the dangers of Enlightenment and the importance of religion. These ideas, combined with her secret studies of the law, gave her some of the basis for her later work as an activist. Her father told her that if she had been a man, she would have been the greatest lawyer in South Carolina. Sarah believed her inability to get higher education was unfair. She wondered at the behavior of her family and neighbors, who encouraged slaves to be baptized and to attend worship services, but did not consider them true brothers and sisters in faith.
From her youth, Sarah believed that religion should take a more proactive role in improving the lives of those who suffered most. Her religious quest took her first to Presbyterianism; she converted in 1817. After moving to Philadelphia in 1821, she joined the Quakers, whom she had learned about in an earlier visit with her father. There, she became an outspoken advocate for education and suffrage for African Americans and women.
By 1817, Sarah's father was seriously ill, and the doctors of Charleston recommended he travel to Philadelphia to consult Philip Syng Physick. Despite her vehement objections, her father insisted that Sarah, then 26 years old, accompany him as his nursemaid. Sarah relented, and they left Charleston for the north in May, 1819. When Physick found he could not help, he suggested that they take in the sea air of the fishing village of Long Branch, New Jersey. The pair settled into a boardinghouse, where, after just a few weeks, John Faucheraud Grimké died.
As a result of this experience, Sarah became more self-assured, independent, and morally responsible. She stayed in Philadelphia a few months after her father died and met Israel Morris, who would introduce her to Quakerism, specifically the writings of John Woolman. She returned to Charleston, but decided that she would go back to Philadelphia to become a Quaker minister and leave her Episcopalian upbringing behind. She was stymied, however, when she was repeatedly ignored and shut out by the male-dominated council. Becoming alienated, she later wrote, "I think no criminal under sentence of death can look more fearfully to the day of execution than I do towards our Yearly Meeting."
She returned to Charleston in the spring of 1827 to "save" her sister Angelina from the limitations of the South. Angelina visited Sarah in Philadelphia from July to November of the same year and returned to Charleston committed to the Quaker faith. After leaving Charleston, Angelina and Sarah traveled around New England speaking on the abolitionist circuit, at first addressing women only in large parlors and small churches. Their speeches concerning abolition and women's rights reached thousands. In November, 1829, Angelina joined her sister in Philadelphia. They had long had a close relationship; for years, Angelina called Sarah "mother", as Sarah was both her godmother and primary caretaker.
In 1868, Sarah discovered that her late brother had three illegitimate mixed-race sons by his personal slave. Welcoming them into the family, Sarah worked to provide funds to educate Archibald Grimké and Francis James Grimké, who went on to successful careers and marriages, and were leaders in the African-American community. John, the youngest, was not interested in formal education and returned to the South to live.
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