“Lord, give them better,” goes the powerful prayer of a South Carolina woman, recorded in the 1930s on Hilton Head, South Carolina by linguist Lorenzo Turner and found in the Library of Congress archives. Lost in the broad annals of American slavery and its aftermath are the many prayers and individual acts of courage whose invisible silence is used today to shut down the struggle for better.
Ann Romney is so absorbed by this silence that she cannot clearly articulate the difference between wealth and privilege and poverty, and the dependency and submission it demands. Her incoherent failure of meaning, her mangled syntax, her non-existent sense of justice shows her lack of experience with and isolation from mainstream lives. That absence of reference belies her struggles to establish an ethic of knowledge about critical aspects of women, a majority but still marginalized population under attack. Trying to be authentic, Ann Romney authors confusion.
That old South Carolina woman knew there was little to love about being poor or doing field work, yet she offered a prayer bright with hope. She doesn’t want to fit in, doesn’t have to pretend to anyone what living has taught her, and her three-word prayer rises far beyond petition. It is a beatific prayer. She is directing God, commanding His will for her highest purpose. It is her commandment for him to follow, rooted in the same shared love; lay the burdens down: give them better.
Would Ann Romney speak these simple, clear words to her husband, her life partner who seeks our nation’s highest position of service? Is there a higher, more succinct calling then these three words the old woman places before God? Is there any doubt about what she means?
Powerful clarity takes courage. Courage rises with the same ease as prayer when it elevates not desire but love. In the dark era of slavery, couples whose love was a light of courage influenced the nation’s course and gave us better.
The women in these families faced more than ridicule or mockery. Daily they walked in circumstances a step away from death. They raised children whose education was illegal and whose bodies were sold. They loved their God but mostly hated their choices, but found the courage to act.
Nancy Weston’s prayers for the nation and her children are unknown, her words in time’s invisible veil. She was a Charleston seamstress, an enslaved woman. She worked independently to support herself and lived in a small house on St. Philip Street. She was member of a noted family of craft and trades workers tied to planter Plowden Weston, of European, African and native American descent, who were slave and free. After the death of his wife, she began a relationship with a prominent lawyer whose father was the Chief Justice of the State’s Supreme Court and a slaveholder with 14 children. Two sisters were later famous abolitionists, Sarah and Angelina Grimke.
Their brother, Henry, was smitten with Nancy Weston. As had his sisters, they soon left the city. But love drove him more than the politics of freedom. He resigned his law practice and moved her with him to his rice plantation, Cane Acres, in the country, built Nancy a house, and fathered her three sons. Small, intimate details of their relationship survive in his letters to his older set of adult children back in Charleston, whose mother Nancy once nursed through illness. At Cane Acres, Nancy carried authority. She overruled the plantation’s overseer, forbidding him to work slaves in the fields on Sunday and bring embarrassment to the family for violating the Sabbath; Henry backed her decision. She attacked Henry once in a domestic dispute and knocked him down. Mainly she tended her chickens and flowers. Her oldest child, Archibald, was given Henry as his middle name, but fate offered its twist; Henry died suddenly when the boys were young.
Given a small pension, Nancy returned to Charleston, educated the boys, and made them recite aloud long passages as she listened. Just before the Civil War began, one of the older siblings claimed the brothers as his property, ignoring Nancy’s assertion not to, as they were his brothers. One ran away and one was purchased as a body servant by a naval officer stationed in Charleston. (One, the youngest, has been lost to time.) After the war, two brothers reunited and made their way to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
Notice in a Boston paper of a Grimke winning an oratorical contest caught the eye of their aunt, now a famous abolitionist. On the strength of the last name, she wrote to him, offering her praise, asking if he were one of the children of their family’s servants. He wrote back, informing her that he and his brother were her nephews.
Archibald Henry Grimke went to Harvard Law (its second black graduate, in 1874!), long before Mitt Romney showed up, knowing nothing of the love and courage that trumped privilege and wealth to bring about this historic step. Archibald was a founder of the NAACP and served as president of the Washington, DC chapter. He vigorously opposed Woodrow Wilson’s policy instituting racial segregation in the federal government, fought to maintain voting rights, served as a US consul. His brother, Francis James Grimke, went to Princeton Seminary and ministered the 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC for 60 years. He was a trustee of Howard University, and an outspoken voice for justice.
Francis’ wife, Charlotte Forten, taught school in Port Royal (Hilton Head), SC during the war and was the granddaughter of a wealthy ship-building and sail-making Philadelphia family. Her grandfather, James Forten, served as a powder boy in the Revolutionary War on board a patriot naval ship.
In Washington, DC during the time was another son of Charleston, Francis Cardozo, born to a free mother and Jewish father, educated at Scotland’s Glasgow University, a Congregational minister in Connecticut who returned to become the founding principal of Charleston’s Avery Institute, a private, mission-supported training school of high standards for black teachers. He was the first black to win election to statewide office in the US, elected South Carolina’s Secretary of State in 1868 and state treasurer in 1872. A Washington, DC high school where he was later principal is named for him.
His brother, Thomas Cardozo, was elected Superintendent of Education in Mississippi in 1871 and is credited as the father of free universal education in Mississippi for all students, black and white.
Lewis and Thomas Cardozo’s mother was Lydia Weston – no doubt kin to Nancy – but the relationship lies officially unverified, with no more than the powerful connection of a legacy name and shared membership in the circle of Charleston urban blacks, enslaved and free, who were trusted and familiar with the lives of privilege and wealth.
Robert Purvis, too, was born in Charleston. Purvis, known as the “President of the Underground Railroad,” helped lead over 9,000 enslaved to freedom, his residence a well known “safe house.” His mother, born in Charleston to a Jewish father and Moroccan mother, married an older Englishman, a wealthy cotton factor who relocated the family to Philadelphia. Upon his death, he left his fortune to his sons, and Purvis, who had dropped out of Amherst, used it to support his family and the cause of abolition. Purvis’ wife was Charlotte Forten’s aunt, and Charlotte lived with Purvis’ family for a period.
As Purvis hated slavery, he loved democracy, for he saw its unique and true potential:
“It is the safeguard of the strongest to live under a government which is obliged to respect the voice of the weakest.”
He, like the Grimke sisters (they knew each other) fought against “the double curse of race and sex,” and labored for the right of women to vote. The women of these families led lives devoted to justice and service, to raising children who fulfilled the destiny whispered in a prayer on Hilton Head, the hallowed ground of America’s first emancipation celebration.
Francis Grimke captures this mission of love’s high faith, in a sermon in 1902:
“God is not dead–nor is he an indifferent onlooker at what is going on in this world. One day he will make restitution for blood; He will call the oppressors to account. Justice may sleep, but it never dies. The individual, race, or nation which does wrong, which sets at defiance God’s great law, especially God’s great law of love, of brotherhood, will be sure, sooner or late, to pay the penalty. We reap as we sow. With that measure we mete, it shall be measured to us again.”
How often today we are reminded by American prejudice of our condition, as struggles fought and won are lost to history’s silence–even as we pray for better.