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date: 18 March 2019

Rollin Sisters

Black Women in America

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn

Rollin Sisters 

Because of their activism during the Reconstruction period, four of the Rollin sisters were well known socially and politically among the people of South Carolina’s state capital, Columbia. The sisters were Frances Anne (1845-1901); Charlotte, known as Lottie (b. 1849); Kate (1851-1876); and Louisa (b. 1858). These four sisters have been celebrated for their cultural and political influence within the black and white Radical Reconstruction government in South Carolina. Little is known about the fifth sister, Florence (b. 1861), who was a small child at the time.

The Rollin family was among the elite South Carolina families of color, descendants of émigrés who had fled the Haitian Revolution in the late eighteenth century. The parents, William and Margaretta Rollin, were married in 1844. They lived in an elegant mansion on American Street in Charleston. William was a fair-skinned mulatto who operated a successful lumberyard and transported lumber by ship between the port of Charleston and South Carolina coastal plantations. Unlike his daughters, William was a political conservative. However, he and Margaretta sent all their daughters to private Catholic parish schools for free “colored” people in Charleston and then to the North for secondary education in Boston and Philadelphia. Both ofthese urban centers had large free-black networks. Frances, Lottie, and Kate attended school in Philadelphia. Lottie and Kate also enrolled at Dr. Dio Lewis’s Family School for Young Ladies in Boston. It was in these cities that the daughters came into contact with abolitionists and others with politically progressive ideas. Consequently, the daughters’ public behavior defied the gender conventions of the Charleston elite of the pre-Civil War years.

The family wealth was ruined by the disruption of the plantation system during the Civil War. After the war, the family moved to Columbia, and the three eldest sisters, Frances, Lottie, and Kate, became active in Reconstruction politics. During Reconstruction, the feminist Lottie, who addressed the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1869, urged support for universal suffrage.

Lottie Rollin was perhaps best known in South Carolina politics as a member of the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). In 1870, she was elected secretary of the South Carolina Woman’s Rights Association, an affiliate of AWSA. The black congressmen Alonzo J. Ransier, Robert C. DeLarge, and their wives were also members of the association. In 1871, Lottie led a meeting at the state capital to promote woman suffrage. By 1872, she had been elected by her state organization to represent South Carolina as an ex-officio member of the executive committee for AWSA, which met in New York City.

In addition to being politically active, Frances, Lottie, and Kate were educators who taught in Freeman’s Bureau Schools. In addition, Lottie and Kate attempted to raise money to establish a Rollin family school in Columbia, where each sister bought property. However, Kate became ill and died in 1876 at the age of twenty-five. In the meantime, Lottie shared her house with her parents and sister Louisa.

The eldest sister, Frances, also became a writer and a law clerk. Like Lottie and Kate, Frances was a feminist and a civil-rights activist. She kept company with the leading black abolitionist women in Philadelphia during the antebellum period and during the Reconstruction era, including Charlotte Forten and Sarah Douglass. After the war, both Frances and Charlotte went to the Sea Islands, off the coast of South Carolina, to teach the freedmen.

Like Charlotte Forten, Frances kept a diary, written during her 1868 sojourn in Boston. That same year, she published a biography of the abolitionist and emigrationist Martin R. Delaney, The Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delaney, under the name Frank A. Rollin. Delaney wanted a competent and sympathetic author to write about his life but felt the public would not accept the book seriously if the author were known to be female.

Frances Rollin had met Delaney when he was a Freedmen’s Bureau agent in Charleston and she was teaching with the bureau in the Sea Islands. It was with the help of the bureau that Frances sued the captain of a Sea Islands steamer for refusing to honor her first-class ticket because she was black. Frances won the suit, and the captain was fined. She became one of several African American women of the times to demand the right to equal treatment with whites in public accommodations.

After completing her book on Delaney in 1868, Frances began to work for William James Whipper as a law clerk in his Columbia law office. Born free in Philadelphia, he was the nephew of the black abolitionist William Whipper. During the Civil War, Whipper joined the Union Army and settled in South Carolina, where he served in the state constitutional convention and became a state senator and later a judge. He was a supporter of women’s rights, and he married the activist Frances Rollin shortly after he hired her.

After marriage, Frances taught at Avery Institute, a well-respected black post-secondary educational institution in Charleston. She also began a family. Frances and William Whipper had five children. The three who survived grew to be successful adults. However, the Whipper marriage did not last, and in 1880 Frances relocated to the District of Columbia, with her three children.

Frances took a job with the federal government. The eldest surviving Whipper sibling was Winifred. She taught in the District of Columbia “colored” schools at the turn of the century. The youngest surviving child, Ionia Rollin Whipper, attended Howard University Medical College in the 1890s. She did so with the help of her mother. Frances wrote Whitefield McKinlay, the Washington realtor and political ally of Booker T. Washington, to ask for a loan to help pay Ionia’s tuition. Frances’s investment in her daughter was worthwhile: Ionia Whipper became a gynecologist and the founder of the Whipper Home for Unwed Mothers, the only facility of the kind that accepted black girls in the racially segregated nation’s capital.

While Frances was on her way to Washington, DC, with her children, Charlotta Rollin was moving her mother, Margaretta, and sister Louisa to Brooklyn, New York, where they settled in 1880. Little else is known about their fate. However, we can speculate that the daughters taught school in Brooklyn, as did many middle-class and educated women of color. Frances returned to South Carolina shortly after her daughter Ionia completed medical school. There, in 1901, Frances Anne Rollin Whipper died in Beaufort.

The sisters lost most of their wealth and property at the end of the century, as did many black Americans during the depressions of the l890s and the political setbacks resulting from the conservative Democratic backlash that drove outthe Radical Republicans following Reconstruction. Nonetheless, the Rollin sisters remain part of the legacy and social history of an era when black Americans significantly influenced the politics of South Carolina and African American women in the South demanded equal rights.


Gatewood, Willard B. ‘The Remarkable Misses Rollin’: Black Women in Reconstruction South Carolina. South Carolina Historical Magazine 92 (July 1991): 172-188.Find this resource:

Ione, Carole. Pride of Family: Four Generations of American Women of Color. New York: Summit Books, 1991.Find this resource:

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, and Matlilda J. Gage, eds. The History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 2. New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1969.Find this resource:

Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn