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Review: Reevaluating the Grimke Sisters and White Abolitionism

The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family 


“Our family, black and white.” For the slaveholding class of the old South, it was a familiar trope, one intended to convey both mastery and benevolence, to hide the reality of raw power and exploitation behind an ideology of paternalistic concern and natural racial hierarchy. There was profound irony in the white South’s choice of this image, for the words were far from simply figurative: They revealed the very truths they were designed to hide. One can see in the slave schedules of the 1850 and 1860 censuses the many entries marked “mulatto,” individuals the census taker regarded as mixed race, rather than Black. This was the literal family produced by the slave system before the Civil War—children conceived from the sexual dominance of free white men over enslaved Black women in liaisons that ranged from a single encounter of rape to extended relationships, such as the decades-long connection between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

Few of these ties were ever acknowledged; white fathers held their own children in bondage, in most cases treating them little differently from their other human possessions. Of the many excruciating and all-but-unfathomable dimensions of American slavery, its manifold assaults on kinship seem among the most inhumane. What was the nature of “slavery in the family,” a designation that today seems both twisted and oxymoronic? How did individuals and families survive its emotional distortions and its insertion of racial subjugation into the most intimate—and precious—aspects of life?

The Civil War diarist Mary Chesnut, born on a South Carolina plantation, once famously remarked of this widespread denial:

The mulattos one sees in every family … resemble the white children. Any lady is ready to tell you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household but her own. Those, she seems to think, drop from the clouds.

Yet that denial had its limits and its exceptions, and the historical record offers occasional glimpses into the tortured dynamics of families “Black and white.” Annette Gordon-Reed’s acclaimed work on Jefferson ranks as one of the most notable of these explorations. But the history of another southern lineage, which Kerri K. Greenidge examines in her new book, The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family, is perhaps even more revealing of the way human bondage shaped and deformed families, as well as the lives of those within them.

The grimkes of South Carolina were in no sense representative of the South’s slaveholding class. The decision of Sarah and Angelina, two daughters of the wealthy planter John Grimke and his wife, Mary, to confront the horror of slavery and move north in the 1820s to become abolitionists and feminists illustrates in its singularity the difficulties of escaping the grip of a system that compromised every white person connected to it. Two of their mixed-race nephews, Archibald and Francis, sons of their brother Henry and the enslaved Nancy Weston, emerged as major figures in Black political and social life after the Civil War. They were embraced and supported by their activist aunts, who had not known of their existence during their early years of bondage, which included brutal beatings and abuse from their white half brother, another of Sarah and Angelina’s nephews. But the exceptional nature of the story—and of the individuals within it—casts into dramatic relief how the slave system could mold lives across generations.

Read entire article at The Atlantic