Home » Travel » Finding the Grimké sisters in Charleston, SC

Finding the Grimké sisters in Charleston, SC

By Sandra Hutchinson

It wasn’t until I had read a few chapters of The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd, that it dawned on me that the characters in the book might have some basis in fact. I think I flipped to the book’s prologue, where I was astonished to learn that indeed, Sarah and Angelina Grimké, the protagonists, fierce abolitionists and women’s rights advocates, were real. Not only that, but they were astonishing in their beliefs and bravery, given the antebellum society, and plantation-owning South Carolinian family, that they were born into.

While visiting Charleston recently (March 2022), we took a walking tour focused on the Grimké sisters, led by Lee Ann Bain. The tour took us through various neighborhoods of historic Charleston, where we saw places the sisters would have known in the early 19th century, and learned of some new research that a Grimké biographer has shared with Ms. Bain. Our tour lasted about 2 1/2 hours. Here’s a link to Ms. Bain’s site where tours can be booked: http://grimkesisterstour.com.

Interestingly, when I booked our accommodations for our spring trip at an 18th century outbuilding on Church Street, within the South of Broad neighborhood, I did not realize at the time that it was the kitchen to a home that sat directly across the street from the Heyward-Washington House, which was owned in the late 18th and early 19th century by the Grimké family. It was in this house, at 87 Church Street, where a horrified, young Sarah looked out her bedroom window and witnessed physical abuse of an enslaved person. It is believed that this deeply affecting event helped form her views towards slavery. Sarah lived in this home from age 2 to 11; the family later moved to a larger home to the north, on East Bay, where her sister Angelina was born.

Heyward-Washington House, 87 Church Street, Charleston, SC

This home was build in 1772 for Thomas Heyward, Jr., one of the four signers of the Declaration of Independence from South Carolina. When the British occupied Charleston in 1780, Hayward was captured and imprisoned in St. Augustine, Florida. The house was rented to George Washington for eight days during the new president’s tour of Charleston in May, 1791. In 1794, Heyward sold the property to John F. Grimké, who had also served as an officer during the war.

Photographs of Sarah and Angelina Grimké on display within the house.
Second floor drawing room of Heyward-Washington House.
Bedroom where George Washington did indeed sleep during his week-long visit to Charleston in May, 1791.

On display in the house is a rare example of a copper “slave badge.” These were unique to Charleston and were carried by enslaved persons who were “hired out” to perform work or services in places other than their normal, assigned workplace. The badges served to distinguish them from runaways or free black persons. The use of these badges is described in The Invention of Wings.

View from staircase of Heyward-Washington House, looking at rear courtyard with outbuildings and garden.

In a pivotal scene early in The Invention of Wings, young Sarah Grimké witnesses a severe beating of an enslaved woman in the rear courtyard while looking out her bedroom window. This is the view from the second floor of the home; our tour guide said Sarah’s bedroom would have been on the third floor. The kitchen building is the one to the right in the photo above.

Interior of kitchen building. Laundry was done in another part of the first floor. Enslaved persons lived on the second floor.

Both Sarah (1792-1873) and Angelina (1805-1879) Grimké eventually moved north and became active as abolitionists and suffragists in the Quaker tradition. Their story is far too complex to relate here, but I highly recommend reading Sue Monk Kidd’s historical novel, and also searching online for more information on these women. Here’s an interesting link from the National Park Service, on the website for the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, NY: https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/grimke-sisters.htm

As an interesting aside, when Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued a discrimination case before the United States Supreme Court in 1973, she famously quoted Sarah Moore Grimké: “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” Sarah wrote those words in 1837.

Here are interior and exterior photos of the 18th century “kitchen cottage” where we stayed, that served a home that sat directly across from the Heyward-Washington House in the 18th and 19th centuries. The cottage has been changed over the years, including modifying the original kitchen fireplace. It was a charming cottage, with a working gas fireplace, but with a precipitous staircase to the upstairs bedroom and bath!

Also, almost next door to our cottage is a home at 90 Church Street where in the early 20th century DuBose Heyward and his wife, playwright Dorothy Heyward, rented the dependency to the rear of the main house while collaborating with George Gershwin on the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. The neighborhood inspired Gershwin’s Catfish Row, an orchestral work based upon music from the opera.

Charleston has a complex but fascinating history. Please check out the many resources of the Historic Charleston Foundation, including its historic house museums, tours and programs, and other museum resources, like those of the Charleston Museum.

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