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Collection African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection

Women Authors

Born to a prominent slaveholding family in South Carolina, the sisters Angelina and Sarah Grimké became two of America's most prominent female abolitionists. They also supported women's rights and were instrumental in linking the two crusades.

Authentic Anecdotes of American Slavery. Lydia Maria Child (Newburyport, Mass., 1838)

In this tract, published in 1836, Angelina Grimké commands Southern women to take action to end slavery and to be willing to endure persecution for speaking out:

"But perhaps you will be ready to query, why appeal to women on this subject? We do not make the laws which perpetuate slavery. No legislative power is vested in us; we can do nothing to overthrow the system, even if we wished to do so. To this I reply, I know you do not make the laws, but I also know that you are the wives and mothers, the sisters and daughters of those who do; and if you really suppose you can do nothing to overthrow slavery, you are greatly mistaken."

Grimké's appeal was well received by Northern abolitionists and was circulated throughout the South by the American Anti-Slavery Society. In South Carolina, officials burned copies of the tract along with a similar text by Sarah Grimké and threatened to imprison the sisters if they returned to the state.

Appeal to the Christian Women of the South. Angelina Emily Grimké (New York, 1836)

The influential writer and editor Lydia Maria Child was recruited to the abolitionist cause by William Lloyd Garrison. In 1833, she penned An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans, winning converts to the movement but also causing her to be ostracized from Boston society. Undeterred, Child continued her crusade. In this tract, she presents a compilation of anecdotes from slaveholders and other white citizens to illustrate some of the cruelties of slavery. Child served as editor for the National Anti-Slavery Standard in the 1840s and also transcribed a number of slave narratives.

The Crime of Crimes, or the Convict System Unmasked. Clarissa Olds Keeler (Washington, D.C., 1907)

In order to compensate for both a dearth of prisons and the loss of slave labor, many states in the postbellum South implemented convict leasing, a system that hired prisoners out for industrial and agricultural work. The prisoners lived in cramped, unhygienic camps and many died from exhaustion or disease. The majority were African-American men but the camps contained women and children as well. Because there was no allowance for degrees of crime, lesser offenders and hardened criminals performed the same hard labor.

In The Crime of Crimes, the social reformer Clarissa Olds Keeler details the brutalities of convict leasing. She offers testimony collected from various newspapers, ministers, criminologists, politicians, and prison boards and emphasizes how many of the prisoners had performed only minor crimes. She laments in particular the situation of female prisoners, who were often assaulted. She writes:

"I determined to know nothing but the truth; and now after nearly a score of years, much of the time of which has been spent in careful research and investigation, I can say with the Christian Register: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS JUSTICE IN THE UNITED STATES IN THE PUNISHMENT OF CRIME."