Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

By Kathryn S. Gardiner

The Misses Rollin

“If you want a thorough posting upon political affairs in South Carolina, you must call on the Rollins.”

Northern reporters from The Sun and The New York Herald brought all their assumptions into the parlor of the Columbia home of the Rollin sisters of South Carolina. By the 1871 newspaper interviews, the reputation of the Rollin family was already well known. Southern politicians and intelligentsia gathered at their salons, which were casually referred to as “The Republican headquarters,” and they were highly influential in the Reconstruction South. Just the same, these contemporary white journalists were shocked by the intelligence, gentility, and poise of Frances Ann, Charlotte, Katherine, Louisa, and Florence.

Their mother has been lost to history, but their father, William Rollin, was a member of the “colored aristocracy” and a native of Santo Domingo (modern day Dominican Republic). He prioritized the education of his daughters, preferring a French curriculum. The eldest, Frances Ann, gained public attention in 1867 when she pursued a discrimination lawsuit against a boat captain who refused her first-class passage. In her legal battle, she was aided by Major Martin Delany, an African-American abolitionist, journalist, physician, and soldier. The lawsuit was ultimately successful and Delany commissioned Frances Ann to write his biography. This publication, “Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany,” was published under the name Frank Rollin, as publishers decided the public was not ready for a book authored by an African-American woman. (Notably, “Frank” was also Frances’s nickname.)

Frances Ann would be the only one of the five sisters to marry, wedding William J. Whipper, an African-American abolitionist and a veteran of the Civil War. Their union produced five children and Frances was widely known to be William’s primary advisor throughout his political career. After 12 years, the couple separated in the 1880s, owing partially to the stress of their individual activism and the continued racial strife in the South. Frances relocated to Washington, D.C., with their children, where she continued her education and the fight for civil rights.

Second-born Charlotte “Lottie” Rollin shared her oldest sister’s passions. “We all believe in women’s rights,” Charlotte told the Herald reporter, “and have had the assistance of the best and purest, and not the noisiest, of our sex.” In March of 1869, Charlotte argued for women’s suffrage before the state house of representatives, making the case that the Constitution did not define voters as male, therefore women should be permitted. In December 1870, Charlotte organized a “Women’s Rights Convention,” serving as chair with her sister Katherine as secretary. Charlotte founded South Carolina’s branch of the American Woman Suffrage Association.

While the pursuit of suffrage faced opposition from both white and black men, Charlotte’s dedication did not waver. “We ask suffrage not as a favor, not as a privilege, but as a right based on the grounds that we are human begins and as such entitled to all human rights, said Charlotte. All of the Rollin sisters were active in South Carolina’s AWSA and were part of a strong push in 1872 for a state constitution amendment for suffrage.

The amendment sparked intense debate (and a fist fight in the legislature) and was ultimately defeated. Despite the Rollin sisters conviction that the Civil War “rebels” would never reclaim control of South Carolina, their personal suffrage efforts failed and the promise of the post-Civil War Radical Reconstruction collapsed. All five sisters would eventually leave their southern home, escaping the growing danger of the Ku Klux Klan, which would, Charlotte told the Herald, “visit Columbia before long, and when that terrible time comes we must be away from here.” In the years to come, Charlotte and Louisa would settle in Brooklyn.

Less is known about the individual lives and passions of the youngest of the Rollin women, Florence, save for her name alongside her sisters in their organizations. The Sun and Herald reporters were impressed by the Rollin sisters’ wit and “ravishing beauty.” “Their manners were refined,” one man wrote, “their conversation unusually clever and their surroundings marked them as ladies of keen taste and rare discernment. But for their color they might move in the highest circles of Washington and New York Society.”

The stunning and impressive lives of the Rollins is explored more fully in “‘The Remarkable Misses Rollin:’ Black Women in Reconstruction South Carolina” by Willard B. Gatewood, Jr. Though the Rollin sisters faced extraordinary setbacks, they also witnessed—and often aided—tremendous progress. Gatewood writes, “For a brief moment following the end of the Civil War, conditions existed that allowed educated and talented black women such as the Rollin sisters to become activists in behalf of their race and sex. Fully aware that Reconstruction…was for them often a ‘perilous’ and ‘stormy period,’ the sisters nonetheless looked back on the era with great pride and no little nostalgia, for they were, in Frances[‘s] words, ‘a part of that wonderful drama.’”