Transcript of Interview from June on the Grimkes, Pell Mellers, and Melungeons

The Melungeon Heritage Association is releasing transcripts from its podcast series Melungeon Voices. The fourth episode featuring my interview is now uploaded to academia.edu; the middle section focuses on the Grimke family who have been the subject of many previous blog posts.

Here is that portion of the transcript:

Paul: I got into studying about Sarah, not because of the mixed ethnic heritage of the family that she married into, but because I’m a librarian and even my academic scholarship has had a lot to do with figuring out mysterious literary sources and who wrote this and is it fiction or nonfiction? And that’s…With Madame Blavatsky and Edgar Casey [Cayce], I was working with that. And Sarah is another example where she was only published posthumously in book form a couple of years after her death. But her main claim to fame really was being the anonymous collaborator of a pseudonymous author. And as you get into her family history research, you realize that both of these people were hiding their identities for reasons of family scandal and controversy. And in Sarah’s case, she was a very idealistic young daughter of an abolitionist clergyman from the North who went to Boston and became one of the earliest female graduates of Boston University in 1878, met and married a man who had been an enslaved South Carolinian of a very prominent aristocratic family. His name was Archibald Grimke. Now the interesting thing about why Archie, which I’ll call him henceforth, was in Boston is because he had two aunts who were very celebrated abolitionist firebrands, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, the oldest and youngest daughters of this wealthy planter family who defied Charleston society and the authority of their parents, and the disapproval of everyone around them, to first become Quakers and then become abolitionists and then go up North and never set foot in South Carolina again. So they’re these wonderful heroines of feminism as well, because both of them had a lot to say about that subject. And they discovered in the early 1870s [late 1860s, actually], they read a newspaper story about these two young men named Grimke, who were distinguishing themselves in a scholarly way at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. And Angelina, the younger of the Grimke sisters wrote to them thinking, “There’s got to be some connection to my family.” And he wrote back and said that he and his two brothers were the sons of their brother, Henry Grimke, who had been dead for some years at that point. Well, any other Grimke sister, the ones in South Carolina, would just have been horrified and never communicated again. But these abolitionist ladies were intrigued and said, “We want to make things right to you. We want to help your education.” And they both ended up at Harvard. [Archie at Harvard, Francis at Princeton after earlier connections in Massachusetts.] So this is why Sarah, my Sarah, the second, meets and marries Archie. They have a daughter that they named Angelina, but the marriage breaks up after a few years, basically over a lot of issues, but racial antagonism and conflict had a lot to do with it. And then even after they break up, Sarah wants custody of the daughter, but three more years later, she sends her back to the father saying, “She’s too dark. Everybody’s ostracizing her. She’s really got to live in a black community because it’s scarring her the way people are looking at her and talking to them.”[her] So, Angelina Grimke… And there is a point that I’m coming to about all this… Definitely you look at her, very beautiful, very talented, looks like a black woman in every picture you see, and yet she’s one of those cases where seven of eight great-grandparents was European and only one African. So really knowing what we know about the way things usually turn out the luck of the draw was that Archie and Sarah’s daughter would be somebody who could pass and stay with Sarah, but she didn’t. And this brings up all these traumas in Melungeon history where families split up over color because some people get more discrimination than others and the white ones abandon the darker ones. So that is a very sad element of this. And yet Angelina ends up so much better off because her Uncle Francis, who is the minister, very well respected of a prominent African-American Presbyterian church in Washington, and his wife, Charlotte Fordham [Forten] Grimke had been childless because the daughter  they had right around the time Angelina was born, died in early infancy. So she becomes a surrogate daughter to her uncle and aunt during a period where her father becomes a diplomatic representative to the Dominican Republic and goes away to Santo Domingo for several years of her teenage life. So just a tremendous family. He was a founder of the NAACP. The sister-in-law was a free black, fairly wealthy woman who after the Civil War, decided to go South and become a school teacher in the Sea Islands, helping the Freedmen and has written about it. So, I’ve grown to love every member of this family, even Sarah, who broke the hearts of her husband and daughter, because there’s things to love about all of these people we do research on. But I must say ultimately, it’s the daughter, Angelina Weld Grimke, there’s all this energy from both lines. She writes lots about politics in line with her father and the aunts and everything, but she also writes, is mostly a poet and a playwright. And she has this airy, mystical quality, but very much what we see in Sarah Stanley Grimke. So that’s how I got fascinated. I keep using the phrase going down a rabbit hole because every book I’ve ever written has had this quality of you never realize how far you’re going or where you’re going. You’re just chasing evidence.