PHILADELPHIA BURNING — THE ABOLITIONIST WEDDING
PHILADELPHIA, MAY 1838 — The bride was from the South, the groom from the North. The wedding invitation featured a slave in chains. Two preachers, one black, one white, presided, but it was the guests who sparked the outrage.
Some were black, some white, rumors said. Sitting side-by-side! Singing together! Someone had to do something! Luckily, abolitionists had gathered that week in Philadelphia. Many had come for a wedding.
The bride’s journey to the altar was harder than the groom’s. The youngest of 14 children born to a prominent plantation owner in Charleston, Angelina Grimké could not reconcile slavery with her Christian faith. When she taught Bible stories to slaves, her family winced. When she protested whippings, her father hushed her. And when she denounced slavery from the pulpit, Presbyterians kicked her out of church.
Angelina and her sister Sarah soon moved to Philadelphia, home of the first abolitionists — the Quakers. By 1832, the movement that Quakers had sparked during the Revolution was finally catching fire. In Boston, William Lloyd Garrison was publishing The Liberator, which Angelina read religiously. When she wrote to Garrison, he was struck by her eloquence, but also by her credentials. A Southerner. A woman!
Garrison published Angelina’s letter and invited the Grimké sisters to a rally in Manhattan. There Angelina met the groom.
Growing up in Connecticut, son of a minister, Theodore Weld was more concerned with saving fellow sinners than saving slaves. But preaching on the revival circuit took Weld into the South where he saw the human cost of “our peculiar institution.”
Weld was “as eloquent as an angel,” one observer noted, “and as powerful as thunder.” Like his future wife, Weld read Garrison’s Liberator and joined the cause. Garrison, recalling his cadre of speakers, remembered Weld as “the central luminary around which they all revolved.”
Listening to Weld, Angelina and her sister were the only women in attendance. “I never heard so grand and beautiful an exposition of the dignity and nobility of man in my life,” Angelina said. The two began a dance of flirtation. In February 1838, Grimké wrote Weld, asking why he did not like her. He replied “you are full of pride and anger,” then added: “AND I HAVE LOVED YOU SINCE THE FIRST TIME I MET YOU.”
The wedding was set for May 14, when an abolitionist convention would inaugurate Pennsylvania Hall. Built two blocks from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, the new building was bankrolled by the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society. Along with the society’s offices, Pennsylvania Hall housed a newspaper, the Pennsylvania Freeman, a store selling produce harvested by free labor, and an auditorium called the “Grand Saloon.”
Pennsylvania Hall, directors announced, would be “open on an equal basis for rental by any groups.” But the inaugural week was an abolitionist affair, kicked off by the wedding.
At the altar, the groom renounced all state authority over their marriage. Love alone was their bond, Weld said. Grimké promised to love her husband, but not necessarily to “obey him.” News of these outrages, plus talk of the mixed audience, set Philadelphia on edge.
Two days later, Angelina Grimké Weld stood at the podium in the spacious Grand Saloon. As she spoke to the huge crowd, shouts came from outside. Angelina answered back: “Do you ask, ‘what has the North to do with slavery?’ Hear it — hear it! Those voices without tell us that the spirit of slavery is here.”
As a Southerner, she continued, “I feel that it is my duty to stand up here tonight and bear testimony against slavery. I have seen it! I have seen it! I know it has horrors that can never be described. I was brought up under its wing.” Seconds later, bricks shattered several windows.
“What is the mob? What would the breaking of every window be? Any evidence that we are wrong? Or that slavery is a good and wholesome institution? What if that mob should burst in upon us and commit violence upon our persons? Would this be anything compared with what the slaves endure?”
When finished, Angelina locked arms with other women and strode into the street. The mob had dispersed but the next day, rioters entered the empty hall, with torches. Firemen arrived but only to protect adjacent buildings. As they watched, Pennsylvania Hall burned to the ground.
“In the destruction of this Hall consecrated to freedom,” The Liberator wrote, “a fire has in fact been kindled that will never go out.” Abolitionists flocked to the ruins, deepening their commitment. Many gathered charred wood and sold it to fund the cause.
The newlyweds moved to New Jersey farm where they compiled an indictment of slavery even more powerful than The Liberator. Published in 1839, American Slavery as It Is used newspaper accounts to document slavery’s savagery, lash by lash. The book sold 100,000 copies. Harriet Beecher Stowe used hers to add graphic details to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Frederick Douglass used his to fuel his fiery speeches.
The abolitionist couple continued their crusade on through the Civil War. They remained together for the rest of their lives.
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