Francis Grimké was a Presbyterian minister and a leading advocate of civil rights. He was born to a wealthy landowner, Henry Grimké and his slave mistress Nancy Weston. After his father’s death in 1852, he moved to Charleston, South Carolina where he lived as a free person until 1860 when his white half-brother, Montague, brought him into his household as a servant. After a severe beating he ran away, and for two years became a valet in the Confederate Army. He was discovered and returned to Montague who, after sending him to the workhouse as punishment, sold him to a Confederate officer.
After the fall of Charleston Grimke attended Morris Street School, a school for free blacks in the city. At age sixteen he moved north to attend Lincoln College, in Pennsylvania. He graduated in 1870 as class valedictorian whereupon he taught mathematics, served as the school’s financial agent and studied law. Francis entered Howard Law School in 1874, but the following year enrolled in the Princeton Theological Seminary. Upon graduation in 1878 he became a Presbyterian minister at the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., and remained at that church as pastor for the next half century.
Grimké was a brilliant, fiery orator who became the first African American leader to challenge Booker T. Washington’s policy of accommodation. He argued instead that African Americans needed to fight for the justice they deserved. He denounced the racist policies of the “federation of white churches” and singled out the YMCA for its segregationist policies. Grimke also challenged the racial hierarchy and discriminatory practices of the Presbyterian Church. An early supporter of the Niagara Movement, Grimke helped found the American Negro Academy and served as trustee to Howard University.