HCC hosts abolitionists' portrayal

AMANDA CUDA acuda@ctpost.com

Article Last Updated: 11/27/2007 12:04:00 AM EST


Angelina Grimke roughly grabbed her younger sister, Sarah, and spun her around before a crowd of nearly 50 people gathered at a parlor meeting Monday afternoon.

"This woman is for sale!" Angelina declared, as her chastened sister stood quietly.

Angelina went on to describe her sister's desirable attributes: she was a good worker, and she didn't make trouble. "This woman is an obedient dog!" Angelina boomed. "Who will give me $50 for this slave?"

This portrayal of a slave auction was an attempt by the "sisters" to make a point about the horrors of slavery.

After all, the year was 1838 and this practice was still a reality. "This atrocity occurs daily in the streets of our Southern cities," declared Angelina, actually Lani Peterson, a Massachusetts-based storyteller who regularly portrays the civil rights leader in historical re-enactments. Her "sister, Sarah," was played by fellow storyteller Susan Lenoe.

And the people gathered before them weren't like-minded Northerners attending an old-fashioned parlor meeting, but students and teachers at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport.

Peterson and Lenoe performed Monday afternoon at an event sponsored by HCC's Honors Program and its Center for Teaching. The event was part of HCC's annual Honors Seminar, an interdisciplinary class that focuses on a different topic each year.

This year, the topic is "Dissent in the 19th Century" and focuses on those who rebelled against the standards of the time, hoping to change the world they lived in. Though it was required for students taking the honors seminar, the re-enactment was open to anyone.

Robert Nelson, who teaches the seminar, asked Peterson and Lenoe to perform, after seeing their re-enactment at a conference in the spring. Nelson said he hoped their act would help put a "human face" on issues like slavery and women's suffrage.

"Slavery is kind of a done deal in the minds of most young people," Nelson said. "Same with women's suffrage."

Hearing the story of activists like the Grimkes is important because it gives these topics immediacy to students, Nelson said. "Lots of people put their lives on the line [for these issues]."

The Grimke sisters were something of a rarity during the 19th century — Southern white women who moved north and campaigned for the freedom of slaves. Eventually, they also developed a passion for women's rights.

The daughters of a prominent judge in Charleston, S.C., they and their siblings each had their own slave. Lenoe, while in character as Sarah, talked about how, as a child, her slave was also her best friend. They played together all day but, when mealtime came, Sarah sat at the table, while her slave stood behind her.

Even as a child, this vexed her, Lenoe/Sarah said. "I thought, 'Why can't my best friend sit at table with me?'" she said.

In an attempt to better her friend, Sarah tried to teach her to read and write, not knowing that, like sitting together at dinner, teaching a slave literacy was forbidden. When he found out, Sarah's father roundly scolded both girls.

A few years later, the slave died, and Sarah was crushed and lonely. But soon she had a new companion. Her mother gave birth to Angelina, who Sarah — then only a teenager — decided to raise as her own. She instilled her abolitionist ideas in Angelina, who became an even more passionate activist. After moving north, the sisters traveled around, speaking about slavery and the pain it caused. "As a Southerner, I have seen it," said Peterson, in character as Angelina. "I know that it has horrors that can never be described."

The Grimkes' activism came at a price. Lenoe and Peterson's re-enactment is set in the days after the sisters were set upon by a mob while speaking in Philadelphia. The mob had burned down the recently built Pennsylvania Hall, in protest of their ideas about slavery.

The sisters even faced opposition from other abolitionists after they began speaking about women's rights in addition to slavery. Their detractors felt they were drawing attention away from slavery, which they considered a more important issue.

Katie Bodnar, an HCC student enrolled in the honors seminar, said she thought the performance was well done, and was particularly moved by the passion of Peterson's portrayal. "She gave me chills," Bodnar said.

Bodnar said she already knew a lot about the Grimkes, but this put those lessons in a different light.

"Everything I learned was through books and teachers," she said. "This was very interesting."