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Recognizing the Grimke Brothers; Kin to Famed Abolitionist Sisters

The Grimke brothers,  Archibald and Francis.
Courtesy of Lee Ann Bain
The Grimke brothers, Archibald and Francis.

A Charleston tour guide shares the story of the Grimke brothers, nephews of Sarah and Angelina Grimke.

Long-time Charleston tour guide Lee Ann Bain takes a stroll off her beaten path near Morris and Coming Streets downtown. She points to the place a new, historical marker will soon go up in what was once a free, Black community.

During the 1800s, the neighborhood was worlds away from where Bain now gives a tour about the famed Grimke sisters on East Bay Street.

Sarah and Angelina Grimke grew up wealthy in a slave holding family. But they were so appalled by what they saw the sisters eventually moved North and became some of the first white, female abolitionists.

“It’s an amazing story of its own,” says Bain. “But when I build in the brothers and their relationship, people’s eyes are like, ‘wow I never knew that’.”

While researching the sisters, Bain found Grimke brothers. They were Sarah and Angelina’s nephews, born to their brother Henry.

Born to a Slaveholder

Bain says Henry was also wealthy with a wife and three children. The family was cared for by a slave named Nancy Weston.

When Henry’s wife gets sick and dies, the kids are sent to boarding school. Henry heads to his plantation outside the city and has a relationship with Nancy. Together they have three sons. Since Nancy is Henry’s property they cannot marry.

“It’s against the law but she pretty much acts like his wife,” says Bain. “She runs the plantation. She keeps Henry in line.”

Henry eventually falls ill and realizes he has a dilemma. Legally, he cannot free Nancy and their boys. So, he reaches out to a son from his wife who died.

“That’s when he calls Montague in and says, ‘I need to will Nancy and your half-brothers to you’,” says Bain. “He’s kind of like, ‘half-brothers what?’”

Free Not Free

Montague knew Nancy but he had no clue about her relationship with his father much less siblings.

He abides by his Henry’s wishes for a while to treat the new-found family well. Nancy and the boys are moved to a home in the Morris Street community where some free, black people reside. But they receive little else.

Then, Montague remarries and decides his new wife needs a wedding present.

“So, he thinks about it a lot,” says Bain. “’Oh, I have a couple of half- brothers’, meaning he requires them to come and work at his house waiting on he and his wife.”

Enslaved Again

Nancy is angry. The boys, Archibald, Francis and John are now tweens and often run away. But Montague firmly reminds them there is nothing they can do about it; they are slaves.

“He finally says, ‘You know ‘mam you seem to forget who owns who here’ and he puts her in the workhouse in solitary confinement.”

Bain says Nancy nearly dies during the punishment. Her sons are repeatedly beaten, even sold.

But after the Civil War is over and the family is free, Nancy makes sure the boys get an education. They attend the first public school for African Americans in Charleston, the Morris Street School now known as Simonton. Then, they head off to college at Lincoln University outside Philadelphia.

The Long-Lost Sisters

It’s now 1868 and Bain says Angelina Grimke is reading an abolitionist newspaper when the name Archibald Grimke catches her eye.

“She starts scratching her head,” says Bain. “Grimke is kind of an unusual name. You know my sister and I lived in Philadelphia and we’re about the only Grimke that we knew.”

Angelina quickly writes the school the brothers attend.

“The boys immediately write back and say, ‘Dear ‘mams we know who you are. We’re you’re nephews. We’re your brother Henry’s sons.’”

The men, once Grimke property, are welcomed like family. The sisters support their continuing education at Harvard and Princeton Universities.

A Legacy of their Own

John goes his own way eventually moving to Florida. But the other brothers go on to play a prominent role in fighting for civil rights.

Archibald helps found the NAACP and serves as its National Vice President as well as its branch president in Washington, D.C. Francis becomes an ordained minister and is considered one of the leading African American clergy at the time. He was a founding NAACP member as well.

“They are the next generation that fights for Blacks,” says Bain.

Bain believes people need to know the Grimke brothers’ story; how they rose from a dark and complicated past in a neighborhood for free, Black people where they were still enslaved.

The historical marker Bain fought for and helped fund will soon go up at the site of the Grimke brother’s family home on Coming Street.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.