Sarah Grimké’s moral courage

Until the abolition of slavery in 1865, Cincinnati and the Ohio River marked a passage to freedom.

By Rachel Lippolis

I started to tell my friend and writing partner about the latest book I read, “The Invention of Wings,” by Sue Monk Kidd.  After a couple of minutes, she said, “You’re really in the perfect job for you.”

I laughed.  Of course I am — I work in a library.  I spend my days picking out books to deliver to teachers and older patrons living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.  I couldn’t ask for a more perfect job.  After a patron recommended Kidd’s book, I requested it from my library’s downloadable collection, and tore though it in less than a week.

Hetty “Handful” Grimké begins the narrative:

“There was a time in Africa the people could fly.  Mauma told me this one night when I was ten years old. She said, ‘Handful, your granny-mauma saw it for herself. She say they flew over trees and clouds. She say they flew like blackbirds.  When we came here, we left that magic behind.” 

When Sarah Grimké turns 11, in 1803, Charleston, South Carolina, she is given 10-year-old Hetty, a slave.  Sarah tries to refuse:

“ ‘……Mother, please let, let me……let me give Hetty back to you.’ Give Hetty Back.  As if she was mine after all. As if owning people was as natural as breathing. For all my resistance about slavery, I breathed that foul air, too.” 

The_Invention_of_Wings_seal-thumbThe narrative shifts back and forth between Sarah—an intelligent girl who devours the books in her father’s library and is stifled by the limitations placed on women of her time and place—and Hetty, a girl who is bound by slavery’s shackles but whose inner life is unbridled.  There is a scene early on, when both Sarah and Hetty lay together on the roof of the Grimké estate, sharing secrets and dreams; this is the closest they will ever be to equal.

The story moves quickly, jumping ahead to the 1810s, 1820s, and finally the 1830s.  Sarah is prohibited from studying her father’s books after it is discovered she taught Handful how to read; she is instead tasked with finding a suitable husband.  She becomes godmother to her little sister, Angelina, and teaches the little girl about the evils of slavery before she can even walk.  Handful, meanwhile, mourns the disappearance of her mother, the house seamstress, who escaped the Grimké plantation but may have been recaptured. Sarah tries to find her voice and Handful struggles to survive in a society that does not recognize her as fully human.

It wasn’t until the book’s afterward that I discovered Sarah Grimké and her sister Angelina were based on real historical figures.  As daughters from a slave-owning family, they could speak of witnessing slavery’s horror first-hand. In 1836, Sarah published an Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States, hoping she would influence the ministers, who would then appeal to their congregants:

“The system of slavery is necessarily cruel. The lust of dominion inevitably produces hardness of heart, because the state of mind which craves unlimited power, such as slavery confers, involves a desire to use that power, and although I know there are exceptions to the exercise of barbarity on the bodies of slaves, I maintain that there can be no exceptions to the exercise of the most soul-withering cruelty on the minds of the enslaved.”

Unfortunately, the clergy wasn’t ready for such a radical idea.  As passionate as they were about the cause of abolition, the sisters found themselves limited by their sex, not taken seriously by many men, and at times only able to speak to female audiences. Sarah published a series of letters on the equality of women.  In one of the letters she wrote, “WHATSOEVER IT IS MORALLY RIGHT FOR A MAN TO DO, IT IS MORALLY RIGHT FOR A WOMAN TO DO” (the caps were all hers). Her fight for abolition also became a fight for women’s rights.  She and her sister’s letters and public lectures influenced Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who helped organized the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls in 1848.

Rachel Lippolis in California.

Rachel Lippolis in California.

By imagining Sarah’s childhood and trying to illustrate how she became such a forceful advocate for immediate abolition, author Sue Monk Kidd brings attention to a name that should be taught in schools everywhere. I grew up and continue to live in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Our downtown sits on the Ohio River, which forms the state’s southern border and, until the abolition of slavery in 1865, marked the passage to freedom. The Freedom Center opened its doors in 2004, showcasing the Cincinnati region’s historical importance as a part of the Underground Railroad, with a number of churches and private homes providing shelter and guidance for escaped slaves.  The museum not only has exhibits about slavery in the United States, but it also highlights forms of modern day slavery.

Watch a YouTube video “Journey to Freedom.

I encourage anyone interested to read Kidd’s “The Invention of Wings” or, at least, read more about the Grimké sisters.  I think we could use all examples of moral courage we can find.

Rachel Lippolis spends her days in the Outreach Department of Cincinnati’s Public Library, and her evenings nesting in the house she bought with her husband of fourteen months.  Some day she will finish her novel.


Editor’s note: Soon after I started the original Rough and Rede, I found myself exploring the blogosphere just to see what was out there. I stumbled upon Perfect Sand, a beautifully written blog by someone who obviously knew books and current events. That’s how I came to know Rachel Colina (now Lippolis). One of these days, we might meet in person.

Tomorrow: “The Dance” by David Quisenberry