Sarah Moore Grimke Biography

Sarah Moore Grimké (November 26, 1792 – December 23, 1873) was an American abolitionist, writer, and suffragist.

Sarah Grimké was born in South Carolina. She was eighth of fourteen children and the second daughter of Mary and John Faucheraud Grimké, a rich plantation owner who was also an attorney and a 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, and despite the fact that everyone around her recognized her remarkable intelligence and abilities as an orator, she was prevented from obtaining a substantive education or pursuing her dream of becoming an attorney, due to these dreams being considered "unwomanly." She received education from private tutors on appropriate subjects for young women of the time.

Sarah’s mother Mary was a dedicated homemaker and an active member in the community. She was a leader in the Charleston’s Ladies Benevolent Society. Mary was also an active Episcopalian and gave some of her time to the poor of the community and women incarcerated in a nearby prison . Even though she had many responsibilities, Mary found time to read and comment on her readings with her son Thomas. Sarah’s mother was a busy woman and Sarah did not have her attention because “she couldn’t be bothered with child’s concerns.”

Perhaps because she felt so confined herself, Sarah expressed a sense of connection with the slaves to such an extent that her parents were unsettled. From the time she was twelve years old, Sarah spent her Sunday afternoons teaching Bible classes to the young slaves on the plantation, and she found it an extremely frustrating experience. While she wanted desperately to teach them to read the scripture for themselves, and they had a longing for such learning, she was refused. Her parents claimed that literacy would only make the slaves unhappy and rebellious; they also suggested that mental exertion would make them unfit for physical labor. Also, teaching slaves to read was against the law in South Carolina since 1740.

She secretly taught 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 such trouble for the slaves themselves prevented Sarah from undertaking such a task again.

When her brother Thomas went off to law school at Yale, Sarah remained at home. Thomas continued teaching Sarah during his visits back home from Yale with 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 supposedly remarked that if Sarah had only been a boy, "she would have made the greatest jurist in the country" Not only did the denial of education seem unfair, Sarah was further perplexed that while her parents and others within the community encouraged slaves to be baptized and to attend worship services, these believers were not viewed as true brothers and sisters in faith.

From her youth, Sarah determined that religion should take a more proactive role in improving the lives of those who suffered most; this was one of the key reasons she later joined the Quaker community where she became an outspoken advocate for education and suffrage for African-Americans and women.

In 1819 Sarah accompanied her dying father to Philadelphia. As a result of her father's death, Sarah became more self-assured, independent, and morally responsible. Sarah stayed in Philadelphia a few more months after her father died and then met Israel Morris, who would introduce her to Quakerism, specifically the writings of John Woolman. She went back home and decided to go back to Philadelphia to become a Quaker minister, leaving her Episcopalian upbringing behind. Her endeavor was unsuccessful as she was repeatedly ignored and shut out by the male dominated council. She returned to Charleston, South Carolina, in the spring of 1827 to “save” her sister Angelina. 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 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. The influence Sarah had on Angelina may have come from the relationship they had since they were young. For years, Angelina called her sister Sarah “mother.” Sarah was her godmother and her main caretaker since youth. This may explain why she felt the need to “save” Angelina from the limitations she faced in Charleston.

In 1868 Grimké discovered three illegitimate nephews that her older brother had had by his personal slave. Welcoming them into the family, she worked to provide funds to educate Archibald and Francis Grimké.