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The Black Renaissance in Washington, DC, 1910-1937
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Angelina Weld Grimke
February 27, 1880 – June 10, 1958

Angelina Weld Grimke was born February 27, 1880 in Boston, Massachusetts, into an unusual and distinguished biracial family. Her family, within the three preceding generations, included slaveholders and slaves, free black people and white abolitionists.

Her father, Archibald Grimke, graduated Harvard Law School and became a prominent lawyer, diplomat, author, editor, publisher and vice president of the NAACP.

Her mother’s middle class white family opposed the marriage of Angelina’s parents on racial grounds, and, ultimately, Angelina was abandoned by her mother and was raised solely by her father and some of his relatives.

In 1902, after graduating from Boston Normal School of Gymnastics, Angelina Grimke moved to Washington D.C. with her father and began teaching English. She taught first at Armstrong Manual Training school and then, from 1916, at Dunbar High School where some of the other writers of the Harlem Renaissance also worked. During this time, she spent summers as a student at Harvard.

Miss Grimke began writing while still quite young, and her first published poetry preceded the Harlem Renaissance by thirty years. However, her best known and most mature work was written and published throughout the 1920’s while she lived in Washington D.C.

She submitted short stories, poems and essays to the Black journals and was published in The Crisis, in Opportunity, in Alain Locke’s Core CollectionThe New Negro (1925), in Countee Cullen’s Caroling Dusk (1927), and in Robert Kerlin’s Negro Poets and Their Poems (1928).

The variety in form and focus of Angelina Grimke’s work is notable. She wrote 173 poems of which 31 were published. Among them were love poems, elegies, poems concerned with racial injustice and black pride, nature poems and poems with the universal themes of life and death.

The mood of much of her poetry is sad and hushed. The work is delicate and clear. And as a colorist, her imagery is presented in vivid color – saffron, green-gold, lilac, etc. Three of the best examples of her poetic sensibility are "The Eyes of My Regret," "At April," and "Trees".

In addition to poetry, Angelina Grimke wrote short stories, essays and plays. Her best known work is Core CollectionRachel, a three-act drama that was staged in Washington D.C., at the Myrtilla Miner Normal School, on March 3 and 4, 1916. It was produced as a vehicle for the NAACP to rally allies against the effects of the motion picture Birth of a Nation. It was also produced at the Neighborhood Theater in New York City on April 26, 1917 and in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 24, 1917. The play was published in 1920.

Alain Locke, in Plays of Negro Life (1927), said of Core CollectionRachel, "Apparently the first successful drama written by a Negro and interpreted by Negro actors." And the NAACP production program said of the play, "This is the first attempt to use the stage for race propaganda in order to enlighten the American people relating to the lamentable condition of ten millions of Colored citizens in this free republic."

When considering the sizable body of work Angelina Grimke produced, it is instructive to note that very little of her work was published. The times were not friendly to a person such as Ms. Grimke. Not only was it difficult for a Black woman to be published, but the fact that she was a Black lesbian woman at a time when such sexuality was not spoken of or in any way acceptable made it that much more difficult with regard to publication.

In 1930, after her father died, Angelina Grimke moved to New York and published nothing more. She lived there in seclusion and died on June 10, 1958.

Ms. Grimke was never considered to be among the first echelon of Harlem Renaissance poets. She had been published before the Renaissance began and was looked upon as a forerunner of the actual creative awakening. Alain Locke acknowledged her role as a significant transitional figure, as a pioneer and path-breaker from whom the "artistic vanguard" inherited "fine and dearly bought achievements".

Selections of Grimke's Work


God made them very beautiful, the trees:
He spoke and gnarled of bole or silken sleek
They grew; majestic bowed or very meek;
Huge-bodied, slim; sedate and full of glees.
And He had pleasure deep in all of these.
And to them soft and little tongues to speak
Of Him to us, He gave wherefore they seek
From dawn to dawn to bring unto our knees.
Yet here amid the wistful sounds of leaves,
A black-hued grewsome something swings and swings;
Laughter it knew and joy in little things
Till man’s hate ended all. –And so man weaves.
And God, how slow, how very slow weaves He—
Was Christ Himself not nailed to a tree?

At April

Toss your gay heads,
Brown girl trees;
Toss your gay lovely heads;
Shake your brown slim bodies;
Stretch your brown slim arms;
Stretch your brown slim toes.
Who knows better than we,
With the dark, dark bodies,
What it means
When April comes a-laughing and a-weeping
Once again
At our hearts?

The Eyes of My Regret

Always at dusk, the same tearless experience,
The same dragging of feet up the same well-worn path
To the same well-worn rock;
The same crimson or gold dropping away of the sun
The same tints, – rose, saffron, violet, lavender, grey
Meeting, mingling, mixing mistily;
Before me the same blue black cedar rising jaggedly to
a point;
Over it, the same slow unlidding of twin stars,
Two eyes, unfathomable, soul-searing,
Watching, watching, watching me;
The same two eyes that draw me forth, against my will
dusk after dusk;
The same two eyes that keep me sitting late into the
night, chin on knees
Keep me there lonely, rigid, tearless, numbly
miserable –
The eyes of my Regret.

Judith Zvonkin, Chief
Biography Division
District of Columbia Public Library

Titles marked Core Collection are included in the Core Collection of Harlem Renaissance Books at the Libraries.

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The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C., 1920-1930s
http://www.dclibrary.org/blkren/ | last updated June 20, 2003