Nancy Weston is not a household name, nor was she a woman much remembered even by historians. Born around 1810, she lived in Charleston, S.C, was enslaved for much of her life, and by 1852 she had given birth to three sons who were fathered by the white man who owned her. This was, as historian Kerri K. Greenidge notes in her brilliant new book, “The Grimkes,” not unusual; white men of means could multiply their wealth by raping the Black women they controlled: each new child, also enslaved, added an asset to the ledger.
The father of Nancy’s boys was Henry Grimke, a low country plantation owner. Two of his sisters, Sarah Moore Grimke and Angelina Grimke Weld, were among the nation’s most famous white abolitionists. They left South Carolina for Philadelphia decades before their nephews were born, and there they’d found a community among Quakers who shared their discomfort with the world into which they’d been born. Sarah and Angelina visited the poor, studied the Bible, and spoke out against slavery, all while “increasingly ensconced in an entirely white world that paid little attention to the Black people they claimed to help.”
As white reformers debated gradual emancipation and what exactly to do with formerly enslaved people, free Black Philadelphia women like Charlotte Forten cultivated “racial pride and community activism,” building what would become a vibrant, striving society — albeit one vulnerable to white rage. One such outburst took place over four days in 1834, when white rioters destroyed more than 30 homes owned by Black residents. “All across the supposedly free North, anti-Black violence was on the rise,” Greenidge notes, often erupting after public expressions of Black success. A ball attended by “well-dressed, dignified Black men and women” so alarmed white society that the newspapers asked “how long it will be before masters and servants change places.”
In “The Grimkes,” Greenidge urges us to consider all these people’s lives, from the famous white Grimke sisters to their Black Grimke nephews, one of whom would marry Charlotte Forten’s daughter, to their mother, Nancy Weston, an enslaved and unfamous woman. Like all family stories, this one gets messy, especially when uncomfortable truths are confronted.
Some of the most difficult, frustrating parts of the story concern the failed promise of solidarity between white and Black women. As abolition conversations intensified in the 1830s, there was a stark contrast between whites steeped in “a Quaker antislavery ethos that ignored Black humanity” and Black speakers who demanded immediate emancipation because “slavery and the prejudice against color are contrary to the laws of God.” Meetings broke down because “most white abolitionist women did not tolerate politically sophisticated, unapologetically opinionated Black abolitionist women.” Decades after the Civil War, in debates about how to structure a post-slavery America, the same problem remained. “White women might continue to exalt what they saw as certain ‘rights,’ but Black women spoke about the wrongs inflicted on them and their communities,” Greenidge writes. As these painful debates swirled, the white Grimke aunts finally met their Black Grimke nephews, Nancy Weston’s sons.
Archie and Frank Grimke first encountered Sarah Grimke, Angelina Grimke Weld, and Angelina’s husband and fellow abolitionist Theodore Weld in 1869. The brothers, students at Lincoln, a Black college in Pennsylvania, visited their white relations at their home outside Boston in Hyde Park. Dressed up for the occasion, the younger Grimkes immediately faced a lecture on thrift and modesty. It would become a pattern: although the Grimke-Welds would offer financial support to put the brothers through school, “such generosity came at a price.” Both brothers (a third, John, became estranged from the family) achieved success — more, in fact, than Angelina and Theodore’s own children — Frank as a minister and Archie as a lawyer and politician. Both faced the continuing racism of American society, often from white members of their own family.
When Archie Grimke, a graduate of Harvard Law School and light-skinned enough that one white girlfriend thought he could look Spanish “in the right light,” married a white woman, her father was outraged by the match, writing, “It may be a source of fun to the Unitarians of Boston, but it has filled our hearts with mourning.” Their daughter, whom they named Angelina Weld Grimke but always called Nana, is the book’s final Grimke, and in many ways, its heart. A poet and playwright, Nana struggled with both the rigid social mores of the Black elite and the unspoken racial trauma caused by her white ancestors — and abetted by the complicity of even the reformers among them.
Greenidge is an especially elegant writer, and an admirably clear one, expertly guiding readers through a century of history and a dauntingly complicated cast of characters. She manages to sketch them all with great sympathy and at the same time utterly clear and unsparing judgment. This book will, I think, make some readers uncomfortable. It’s worth it. “The Grimkes” is by turns heartbreaking, entertaining, and thought-provoking: a triumph.
THE GRIMKES: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family
By Kerri K. Greenidge
Liveright, 416 pages, $32.50
Kate Tuttle is a writer and editor.
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.