When historical accounts tell of the efforts to advance the civil rights of African Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries, Archibald, Francis and John Grimké aren’t typically mentioned. But Cainhoy peninsula resident Lee Ann Bain is hoping to change that – starting at the local level.
A licensed city of Charleston tour guide, Bain is raising money to fund a state historical marker on the brothers, who are the nephews of famed female abolitionists and Charleston natives Angelina and Sarah Grimké. Bain has been leading walking tours downtown about the Grimké sisters for almost seven years.
Archibald, Francis and John are the sons of the Grimké sisters’ brother, Henry, and his enslaved woman, Nancy Weston. According to Bain, they were born into slavery in Charleston in the mid-1800s. But one of the things that makes their story so compelling, she explained, is what they did to change their trajectory and impact the lives of others.
“They did so much to fight for the rights of African Americans,” said Bain, who also serves on the Daniel Island Historical Society’s board of directors. “They were that next generation. They're in the same time frame as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker Washington.”
Henry Grimké was a lawyer and planter who lived just outside of Charleston. He passed away when Nancy was pregnant with their third child, John.
According to the South Carolina Encyclopedia, after Henry’s death in 1852, Nancy took the young boys to Charleston, “where, though legally enslaved, they lived a quasi-free existence.” Henry’s son, Montague, from his first marriage “sought to reassert control over them, forcing the brothers into household slavery.” In 1862, during the latter part of the Civil War, Archibald fled and went into hiding. He and his brothers would later enroll in a school for former slaves, where a staff member took a special interest in them and
arranged for them to continue their education up north – at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
Once there, the Grimké brothers’ path was undoubtedly impacted by the involvement of their aunts, who had each rejected the slavery of the South and moved up the coast to New England, where they proceeded to blaze new trails advocating for women’s rights.
Angelina and Sarah didn’t know their nephews existed until 1868. While living in Philadelphia, Angelina was reading an abolitionist newspaper and came across an article about a “fine address” given by a promising student named Archibald Grimké attending
nearby Lincoln. Curious about the young man with the same name as hers, she wrote him a letter.
“She says ‘Hi, my name is Angelina, my sister, Sarah, and I are from South Carolina,’” noted Bain, who speaks about the men while conducting her Grimké sisters tour. “‘Would you be some of our family’s former slaves?’ The boys immediately write her back and say ‘we know who you are! We are your nephews. We’re your brother Henry’s sons!’”
“So she goes and meets her nephews,” continued Bain, “and that starts this relationship with them.”
Angelina and Sarah end up taking the boys under their wings, offering emotional and financial support as they continue their education. Although John doesn’t stay at Lincoln, Archibald and Francis graduate and go on to earn degrees from Ivy League schools - Archibald from Harvard Law School and Francis from Princeton Seminary.
“They end up living near them,” Bain said. “The sisters later in their life live in Hyde Park, Massachusetts, and Archibald and Francis really do live around the corner from them. And Archibald ends up getting married and names his daughter Angelina, so that shows you how close that they are.”
Archibald later becomes U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic. Francis is one of the 60 people who answered the call to start the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Archibald also has ties to the organization and served as president of the Washington DC Chapter and vice president for the national chapter.
“It’s an amazing story because they were born into slavery,” Bain said. “... Their mom educated them. She didn’t have any money, and she saved whatever she could so they could be educated.”
Once she has secured enough funding, Bain hopes to place the new historical marker about the brothers in front of their former home site on Coming Street. It has already received approval from the state and the City of Charleston.
“I just thought that because of what they did and where they came from, it was important for people to know,” Bain continued. “They were enslaved but they took what they had, the opportunities, and they just grew from there.”