Angelina Weld Grimke as a young woman

A play by Michael Dinwiddie and a book by Kerri K. Greenidge evoke an illustrious American family of mixed ancestry, and none more emblematic than Angelina Weld Grimke. She was three-quarters white—her mother was white and her father was half-white—and thus taken together, Angelina was a “woman of color.” The proverbial “one-drop theory,” may have its poster girl with her.

Notwithstanding the race matter, Angelina was a talented poet, and she is best remembered for her words in several genres than the color of her skin. She was born on Feb. 27, 1880, in Boston. Her father, Archibald Grimke, was a prominent attorney whose father was a slave owner, including an enslaved woman his father owned. He was the second Black man to graduate from Harvard Law School. Angelina’s mother, Sarah Stanley, was a woman of European ancestry, and other than that little is known of her.

We do know, however, that they met in Boston where Archibald established his law office. She was named to honor her father’s paternal white aunt Angelina Grimke Weld, and thus a flip in her name. Their marriage was not appreciated by the family with race being the principal issue. After Angelina’s birth, Sarah left her husband and began a career of her own in the Midwest. When Angelina was seven, she was sent back to Massachusetts to live with her father. That ended her contact with her mother who committed suicide a few years later.

No reason has been given for her taking her life, though it could be her being connected to a family with a convoluted mixture of slavery and complicated ancestry. Moreover, we can never be completely assured of how these factors may have troubled her and compelled her to send her daughter back to live with her father. Even so, her in-laws had a number of distinguished personalities, and Angelina would follow in their wake as she began her educational journey at Boston Normal School of Gymnastics, later the Department of Hygiene of Wellesley College. After her graduation she moved with her father to Washington, D.C., thereby joining her uncle, Francis Grimke.

Angelina began teaching English at the Armstrong Manual Training School in 1902. The school, consistent with the Jim Crow system at that time, was Black and segregated. By 1916, she was a teacher at the renowned Dunbar High School. Among her notable students was the playwright and poet, May Miller. During her summer break, she often took classes at Harvard University. On July 11, 1911, she was traveling on a train to Connecticut when it crashed; she sustained a back injury that never completely healed. Seven years later her father became ill; in 1928 she retired to care for him and attended him until his death in 1930. She left the nation’s capital and moved to New York City where she lived in a semi-recluse apartment on the Upper West side before her death in 1958.

Her literary legacy was quite impressive, having published in a number of prestigious journals, including the NAACP’s Crisis magazine and the Urban League’s Opportunity. She was among a coterie of noted writers in several anthologies and her poetry was included in “Caroling Dusk and Negro Poets and Their Poems.” Depending on the publication, she is often considered a writer of the Harlem Renaissance or shortly before. In 1916, her play “Rachel” was produced in both New York City and Washington, D.C. According to the NAACP, her play was “the first attempt to use the stage for race propaganda in order to enlighten the American people relating to the lamentable condition of ten millions of Colored citizens in this free republic.” The play depicts the life of a Black family from the South who migrates to the North in the early 20th century and their responses to the racial ignominies they faced and endured. Also, she interrogates themes of motherhood, and the problems children encounter. Crucial to the play’s development is an episode of lynching. “The play was published in 1920, but received little attention after its initial productions. In the years since, however, it has been recognized as a precursor to the Harlem Renaissance. It is one of the first examples of this political and cultural movement to explore the historical roots of African Americans,” one review noted.

Angelina wrote a second anti-lynching play, “Mara,” parts of which have never been published. And lynching continued to be a central concern in subsequent publications, both in a fictional and non-fiction mode. Her play “Goldie” was based on the 1918 lynching of Mary Turner, anticipating Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.”

As to her sexual orientation, that was revealed in part when as a teenager she wrote to a female friend and lover, “I know you are too young now to become my wife, but I hope, darling, that in a few years you will come to me and be my love, my wife! How my brain whirls how my pulse leaps with joy and madness when I think of these two words, ‘my wife.’” This disclosure caused a break in her relationship with her father when he learned of it in 1903. Her father presented her with an ultimatum about the affair, insisting she choose between him, and the young woman.

Her sexuality was often a topic of controversy and evidence of her lesbianism or bisexual tendency was given further credence in such publications as the “Dictionary of Literary Biography: African-American Writers before the Harlem Renaissance” which cites: “In several poems and in her diaries Grimké expressed the frustration that her lesbianism created; thwarted longing is a theme in several poems.” Some of her unpublished poems are more explicitly lesbian, implying that she lived a life of suppression, “both personal and creative.”

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