Civil Rights Tour: Civic Activism - The Grimkés, An Activist Family

1415 Corcoran Street NW (Site)

“He was a radical among the radicals ... It is only the gentleman and the scholar who can be a radical and an agitator without being a nuisance.”

These words, written by the prominent sociologist and journalist Kelly Miller, described Civil Rights leader Archibald Grimké (1849-1930). Born to an enslaved mother and her white owner in South Carolina, Grimké earned a law degree from Harvard, practiced law in Boston, worked as a journalist, and served as U.S. consul to Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic), before arriving in Washington in the early 1900s. He spent the rest of his life fighting for civil rights.

Grimké presided over the American Negro Academy from 1903 to 1919 and ran the Washington branch of the NAACP from 1913 to 1925. Founded in 1909 as both racial violence and segregation were on the rise, the NAACP faced long odds. However, under Grimké the local organization grew in size and saw some victories. In 1919 it succeeded in having segregation signs in Rock Creek Park removed, and a few years later it successfully warded off attempts to segregate Griffith Stadium, the bathing beach at the Tidal Basin, and Union Station’s dining room.

Grimké’s daughter, poet Angelina Weld Grimké (1880-1958), taught English at Armstrong Manual Training School and then Dunbar High School. The NAACP’s Drama Committee produced her play Rachel, about lynching, in 1916. In the 1920s she became a regular at poet Georgia Douglas Johnson’s literary salon.

Archibald Grimké’s younger brother, Francis, and his wife, pioneer African American educator, early supporter of equal rights for women, writer, poet and active abolitionist, Charlotte L. Forten Grimké (1837-1914), came to Washington in 1889; he was the pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, ultimately serving there for more than 60 years. The couple lived near the church at 1608 R Street, but by 1905 all four Grimkés (Archibald, Francis, Charlotte and Angelina) lived at 1415 Corcoran Street, and that is where Archibald Grimké died in 1930. The Corcoran Street house was demolished sometime after Grimke's death and is currently a parking lot; the house at 1608 R Street, known as the Charlotte Forten Grimké House, is a National Historic Landmark.