Posted on: April 22, 2021
Writer Angelina Weld Grimké was born in Boston in 1880 to a white mother, Sarah Stanley, and a Black father, Archibald Grimké. Sarah Stanley was a member of a well-known Boston family. Archibald Grimké was born into slavery as the son of a white man and one of the women whom he enslaved. After attaining freedom, Archibald Grimké attended college and law school in the North. He became a prominent lawyer, Democratic Party activist, and leading member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Angelina Weld Grimké was named for her great aunt, the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Angelina Grimké Weld, cementing her place in the legacy of activism carried by her family.
Archibald Grimké and Sarah Stanley’s marriage was fraught, met with displeasure from her family, and lasted just a few years beyond the birth of their only child. After they separated, the young Grimké moved to the midwest with her mother. She stayed there for four years, at which time custody reverted back to her father, and she rejoined him in Boston for the duration of her childhood. Sadly, her mother committed suicide soon after Grimké moved back to the Northeast.
Upon her return to Boston, Grimké completed her education at the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics (now part of Wellesley College) and attended supplemental classes at Harvard University. She graduated in 1902 with a degree in Physical Education and moved to Washington D.C., with her father, where she became a teacher. She first taught physical education at the Armstrong Manual Training School and then transferred to the M Street School where she taught physical education and eventually English.
It was around this time that Grimké’s writing career began to flourish. She wrote poetry, drama, and short stories, and often focused on topics such as lynching and the injustices of living as a Black person in America. In 1916, Grimké’s play Rachel was produced in Washington, D.C., by the NAACP as a response to the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. Reactions to the play caused such controversy that Grimké was moved to publish an article in the Competitor explaining, “Since it has been understood that ‘Rachel’ preaches race suicide, I would emphasize that that was not my intention. To the contrary, the appeal is not primarily to the colored people, but to the whites.” It is just this intention that was reflected in the playbill for the original production, which described the play as “...the first attempt to use the stage for race propaganda in order to enlighten the American people relative to the lamentable condition of the ten million of colored citizens in this free Republic.” Rachel was produced again in New York in 1917 and then published by a Boston-based publishing house in 1920.
Grimké also wrote the unpublished play Mara and short stories including The Closing Door and Goldie, but it was her poetry that found the widest audience. She was published throughout the 1920s in such anthologies as Negro Poets and Their Poems (1923), The New Negro (1925), and Caroling Dust (1927). Her poetry tended toward the romantic and often featured women as the object of longing. Grimké’s diaries and journal entries also focused on subjects both male and female, and together these writings have served as evidence to many scholars that Grimké was queer, though unable to live openly as such during her lifetime. It is believed that her father knew of her attraction to women and disapproved, as he had of many other aspects of Grimké’s person throughout her childhood and teenage years.
Grimké’s father remained a major influence in her life, because she never married or had children of her own, he was her primary companion. She retired from teaching in 1928 to care for him as he suffered from a long illness. Archibald Grimké passed in 1930, and it was at this point that Grimké moved to New York and stopped writing. She lived out the rest of her days in a solitary and reclusive fashion, dying in 1958 at the age of 78. ♦
Read more: Timeline of Black American Theatre
Read more: Literary Ancestry Essay Series
Read more: Recommended Plays and Further Reading
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Storm, William. “Reactions of a ‘Highly Strung Girl’: Psychology and Dramatic Representation in Angelina W. Grimké’s Rachel.” African American Review, vol. 27, no. 3, 1993, pp. 461-471.
Sutherland, Claudia. “Angelina Weld Grimké (1880-1958).” BlackPast.org, 15 Feb. 2007.