Garnet, Henry Highland

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Henry Highland Garnet

Henry Highland Garnet (1815–1882) was a leading member of the generation of black Americans who led the abolition movement away from moral suasion to political action. Garnet urged slaves to act and claim their own freedom. Garnet worked to build up black institutions and was an advocate of colonization in the 1850s and after. Garnet also devoted his life to ministry in the Presbyterian Church.

Garnet was born into slavery near New Market, Kent County, Maryland, on December 23, 1815. His father, George Trusty, was the son of a Mandingo warrior prince, taken prisoner in combat. George and Henny (Henrietta) Trusty had one other child, a girl named Mary. George had learned the trade of shoemaking. The Trusty's owner, William Spencer, died in 1824. A few weeks later 11 members of the Trusty family received permission to attend a family funeral. They never returned. Travelling first in a covered market wagon and then on foot for several days, the family group made its way to Wilmington, Delaware. There they separated; seven went to New Jersey, and Garnet's immediate family went to New Hope, Pennsylvania, where Garnet had his first schooling.

In 1825 the Garnets moved to New York City. There, after earnest prayer, George Trusty gave new names to the family. His wife Henny became Elizabeth, his daughter Mary, Eliza. Although the original first names of George and Henry are unknown, the family name became Garnet. George Garnet found work as a shoemaker and also became a class-leader and exhorter in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Garnet entered the African Free School in Mott Street in 1826. There he found an extraordinary group of schoolmates. They included Alexander Crummell, an Episcopal priest and a leading black intellectual, who was Garnet's neighbor and close boyhood friend; Samuel Ringgold Ward, a celebrated abolitionist and a cousin of Garnet; James McCune Smith, the first black to earn a medical degree; Ira Aldridge, the celebrated actor; and Charles Reason, the first black college professor in the United States and long-time educator in black schools. Garnet and his classmates formed their own club, Garrison Literary and Benevolent Association, and soon had occasion to demonstrate their spirit. Garrison's abolitionism had little mass support among whites at this time, and abolition meetings in New York City easily led to mob violence. Thus, even the school authorities feared the use of his name for a club meeting at the school. The boys retained the club's name and moved their activities elsewhere.

As a boy, Garnet was high-spirited and quite different from the sober and quiet adult he later became. In 1828 he made two voyages to Cuba as a cabin boy, and in 1829 he worked as a cook and steward on a schooner from New York to Washington, D.C. On his return from this voyage, he learned that the family had been scattered by the threat of slave catchers. His father had escaped by leaping from the upper floor of the house at 137 Leonard Street—next door to the home of Alexander Crummell. The family of a neighboring grocer had sheltered his mother. His sister was taken but successfully maintained a claim that she had always been a resident of New York and therefore no fugitive slave. All of the family's furniture had been stolen or destroyed. Garnet bought a large clasp-knife to defend himself and wandered on Broadway with ideas of vengeance. Friends found him and sent him to hide at Jericho on Long Island.

Since Garnet had to support himself, he was bound out to Epenetus Smith of Smithtown, Long Island, as a farm worker. While he was there he was tutored by Smith's son Samuel. In the second year there, when he was 15, Garnet injured his knee playing sports so severely that his indentures were canceled. The leg never properly healed, and he used crutches for the rest of his life. (After 13 years of suffering and illness, the leg was finally amputated at the hip in December 1840.) Garnet returned to his family, which had reestablished itself in New York. He then continued his schooling, and in 1831 he entered the newly established high school for blacks, rejoining Alexander Crummell as a fellow student.

The leg injury may have sobered Garnet, who became more studious and turned his thoughts to serious consideration of religion. Sometime between 1833 and 1835 he joined the Sunday school of the First Colored Presbyterian Church, located at the corner of William and Frankfort streets. There Garnet became the protegé of minister and noted abolitionist Theodore Sedgewick Wright, the first black graduate of Princeton's Theological Seminary, who brought about Garnet's conversion and then encouraged him to enter the ministry.

Garnet married Julia Ward Williams in 1841, the year he was ordained an elder. Williams was born in Charleston, South Carolina, but came to Boston at an early age. Williams had studied at Prudence Crandall's school in Canterbury, Connecticut, and also at Noyes Academy. She taught school in Boston for several years and after her marriage was head of the Female Industrial School while the family lived in Jamaica. The couple had three children: James Crummell (1844–1851); Mary Highland (born c. 1845); and a second son (born 1850). There was also an adopted daughter Stella Weims, a fugitive slave. Julia Garnet died in 1870, and about 1879 he married Susan Smith Thompkins, a noted New York teacher and school principal.

Sought Higher Education

In 1835 Garnet, Alexander Crummell, and Thomas S. Sidney, classmates from New York, made the difficult journey to the newly-established Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire. Founded by abolitionists, Noyes was open to both blacks and whites and to men and women. (There Garnet met Julia Williams.) The students from New York were in New Hampshire by July 4, when they delivered fiery orations at an abolitionist meeting. A vocal minority of local townspeople was determined to close down the school and drive away the 14 blacks enrolled. In August they attached teams of oxen to the schoolhouse, dragged it away, and burned it. Garnet, Crummell, and Sidney returned to New York.

Fortunately, there was another institution that opened its doors to black students, and this time the local towns-people did not rise up physically to reject them. In early 1836 Garnet joined Crummell and Sidney at Oneida Institute in Whitesboro, New York. In May 1840 Garnet attended the meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York and delivered a well-received maiden speech. In September, he graduated from Oneida with honors and settled in Troy, New York.

Established a Career

Even though Garnet was not yet ordained, he had been called as minister to the newly established Liberty Street Presbyterian Church at Troy, New York. Garnet studied theology with the noted minister and abolitionist Nathaniel S. S. Beman, taught school, and worked toward the full establishment of the church whose congregation was black. In 1842 Garnet was licensed to preach and in the following year ordained a minister. He thus became the first pastor of the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church in Troy, where he remained until 1848.

Teaching and the ministry hardly filled all of Garnet's time. He assisted in editing The National Watchman, an abolitionist paper published in Troy during the latter part of 1842, and later edited The Clarion, which combined abolitionist and religious themes. Closely interwoven with Garnet's church work was his work in the Temperance Movement, in which he took a leading part. By 1843 he received a stipend of $100 a year from the American Home Missionary Society for his work for abolition and temperance. When the society expressed its objections to ministers engaging in politics on Sundays, Garnet withdrew his services. His work for temperance was widely recognized. In 1848 one of the two Daughters of Temperance unions in Philadelphia was named for him.

State politics also brought Garnet into prominence. There were black state conventions from 1836 to 1850. Garnet worked for the extension of black male voting rights in New York state, but a property holding qualification was imposed upon blacks. He presented several petitions to the legislature on this subject. However, the state property qualification remained the law until the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870.

Urged Rebellion

In 1839 the Liberty Party came into existence with abolition as one of its major planks. Although its vote in the 1840 elections was minuscule, the party set its sights on the 1844 election. Garnet became an early and enthusiastic supporter of this reform party. He delivered a major address at the party's 1842 meeting in Boston. He was also able to secure the endorsement of the revived National Convention of Colored Men, held in Albany in August 1843 for the party. Garnet gave a convincing demonstration of his oratorical powers soon afterwards when he turned around a New York City meeting convened to disavow the convention's action. Much to the organizers' disappointment the meeting ended by endorsing the Liberty Party. The year 1844 marked a peak for the party. Then the Free Soil Party and later the Republican Party began to attract reform-minded voters. Garnet was late and unenthusiastic in supporting the Republicans.

Garnet's turn towards activism marked his break with leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who rejected politics in favor of moral reform. Garnet's impatience with Garrison's position was expressed publicly as early as 1840 when he was one of the eight black founding members of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society which formalized the split in the ranks of abolitionists.

Just as Garnet was in the vanguard of the blacks who began to seek remedies in political action and even revolution, he also led the way in proposing emigration as a solution for black plight in the United States as proposed by the American Colonization Society. Since 1817 most American blacks condemned the American Colonization Society and were suspicious of the society's aims and of its creation, the nation of Liberia, which became independent in 1847. Garnet, however, was coming to favor black emigration to any area where there might be hope of being treated justly and with dignity. Bitter personal experience soon underlined his position: in the summer of that year he was choked, beaten, and thrown off a train in New York State.

Traveled Abroad

Garnet moved from Troy to Geneva in 1848. Then in 1850 he went to Great Britain at the invitation of the Free Labor Movement, an organization opposing the use of products produced by slave labor. The following year he was joined by his family. There he remained for two and a half years, undertaking a very rigorous schedule of engagements. Both James McCune Smith and Frederick Douglass felt he was doing especially well because he was the first American black of completely African descent to appear there to speak in support of abolition. Douglass did not relax his general hostility to Garnet, however, and gave little attention to Garnet's activities abroad.

In the latter part of 1852, the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland sent Garnet to Jamaica as a missionary. He did effective work there until a severe prolonged illness caused his doctors to order him north. In 1855 he was called to Shiloh Church on Prince Street, where he became the successor of his mentor, Theodore S. Wright.

Although the support for emigration was growing in the black community, Garnet had to face sharp criticism for his position in favor of it, particularly from Frederick Douglass. Douglass commented sharply on a request for American blacks to go to Jamaica made by Garnet before his return.

Alexander Crummell, Garnet's boyhood friend and fellow student who had established himself in Liberia after earning a degree from Cambridge University in England, endorsed the goal, as did the influential West-Indian born educator Edward Wilmot Blyden. Garnet made a trip to England as president of the society in 1861. In conjunction with this trip he established a civil rights breakthrough by insisting that his passport contain the word Negro. Before this time the handful of passports issued to blacks had managed to skirt the issue of whether blacks were or were not citizens of the United States by labeling the bearer with some term such as dark. Although Garnet's and Martin Delany's efforts at colonization at this time were running in parallel and not coordinated, the pair agreed on aims. Garnet proposed a visit to Africa to follow up Delany's 1859 efforts there, but the plan fell through with the outbreak of the Civil War.

Supported Civil War Efforts

With the outbreak of the war, Garnet joined other blacks in urging the formation of black units. When this goal was realized during the beginning of 1863, he traveled to recruit blacks and served as chaplain to the black troops of New York State, who were assembled on Ryker's island for training. He led the work of charitable organizations that worked to overcome the unfavorable conditions initially facing the men due to wide-scale corruption and anti-black sentiments in the city.

In March 1864 Garnet became pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church of Washington. D.C. There he delivered a sermon in the chamber of the House of Representatives on February 12, 1865, the first black to do so, and also one of the first blacks allowed to enter the Capitol. He moved his residence to Washington and became the editor of the Southern Department of the Anglo-African. As an assignment Garnet undertook a four month trip to the South at the end of the war, which included a visit to his birthplace. Garnet accepted the presidency of Avery College in Pittsburgh in 1868, but returned to Shiloh Church in New York in 1870.

Crummell reported that Garnet went into a physical and mental decline about 1876. In spite of the discouragement of his friends, Garnet actively lobbied for the position of minister to Liberia, which he obtained. Garnet preached his farewell sermon at Shiloh on November 6, 1881, and landed in Monrovia on December 28. He died on February 13, 1882.


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Penn, I. Garland, The Afro-American Press and Its Editors, Willey and Co., 1891.

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Smith, James McCune, A Memorial Discourse; Delivered in the Hall of the House of Representatives, Washington City, D.C., on Sabbath, February 12, 1865, Joseph M. Wilson, 1865.

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Walker, David, and Henry Highland Garnet, Walker's Appeal and Garnet's Address to the Slaves of the United States of America, 1848. Reprint, James C. Winston Publishing, 1994.


Journal of Negro History, January 1928.

Garnet, Henry Highland

views updated Jun 08 2018

Garnet, Henry Highland

December 23, 1815
February 12, 1882

Clergyman and abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet was one of the most formidable African-American leaders of the mid-nineteenth century. He was born on a slave plantation in New Market, Maryland, where his grandfather, likely a former Mandingo chief, was a leader of the slave community. At the age of nine he escaped from slavery with his family to New York City, where he was reared in an African-American community committed to evangelical Protestantism, "mental and moral improvement," and the antislavery cause. Young Garnet, whose father was a shoemaker and a leader of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, received an excellent education for a black youth in Jacksonian America in schools established by abolitionists, black and white. Beginning in 1825 he attended the famous African Free School on Mulberry Street. After several years as a seaman, followed by an apprenticeship to a Quaker farmer on Long Island (whose son became his tutor), Garnet in 1832 entered the Canal Street High School, which was directed by Theodore S. Wright and Peter Williams, Jr., two of the leading black clergymen and abolitionists of the era. Wright, who had been educated at Princeton, became his mentor, and in 1833 Garnet joined Wright's First Colored Presbyterian Church, a church that Garnet himself was later to pastor.

In 1835 Garnet, along with Alexander Crummell and another black youth, matriculated at the newly opened Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire. Not long after their arrival, following a harrowing journey on segregated transportation, a mob of neighboring farmers, angered by the boys' presence and their participation in local abolition meetings, dragged the makeshift school building into a nearby swamp and forced them to leave. The next

year Garnet enrolled in Oneida Institute at Whitesboro, New York, from which he graduated in 1839.

In 1843 Garnet became an ordained minister in the Presbyterian church, although he had already pastored the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church in Troy, New York, since 1840, turning the church into a center of abolitionism and black self-help in the Troy area. He made his church an important station on the Underground Railroad; he set up a grammar school at the church, for education was the key to black progress; he preached temperance because drink undermined black advancement; and he edited two short-lived antislavery newspapers, the Clarion (1842) and the National Watchman (1847), so that African Americans could have their own voice. He also urged African Americans to leave the cities and pursue the greater independence of farm ownership.

During his Troy years, Garnet became heavily involved in radical antislavery politics. Shortly after joining in 1841, he became a leader in the newly formed Liberty Party, which pledged to end slavery through participation in the political process, an approach that contrasted with the moral suasionist, antigovernment approach of William Lloyd Garrison and his followers. At the same time, Garnet played a leading role in the struggleunsuccessful until 1870to eliminate property restrictions on the black franchise in New York State. In addition to state conventions, Garnet was active in the national Negro conventions movement, designed to establish policies on problems of slavery and race. It was at the Buffalo, New York, meeting in 1843 that he delivered his provocative "Address to the Slaves of the United States of America." In it he urged them to meet their moral obligation to the just God who had created all people in his image by using whatever means the situation dictated to throw off the oppressor's yoke. Garrisonians, led by Frederick Douglass, who interpreted Garnet's remarks as a call for slave rebellion, opposed a resolution authorizing the convention to distribute the speech. After heated debates the resolution was defeated. Garnet reintroduced the speech in the Troy convention in 1847 and shortly afterward published it, together with David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829), from which he had drawn some of the ideas contained in the "Address." By 1849 Douglass himself, no longer a Garrisonian, was stating publicly that he welcomed news of a rising of the slaves.

In 1850, following two years of successful mission work in Geneva, New York, Garnet left for England to lecture in the free-produce movement, whose major object was to strike at slavery through the boycott of goods produced by slave labor. Garnet remained in the British Isles until 1853 and then served as a missionary in Jamaica until illness forced his return to the United States in 1856. He then was named pastor at the Shiloh (formerly First Colored) Presbyterian Church in New York City and remained there until 1864, when he was called to the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.

Garnet's restless search for ways to liberate African Americans from the bonds of slavery and color prejudice took another turn in 1858, when he became president of the newly formed and black-led African Civilization Society (ACS). Its grand design was the development of an "African nationality" through the "selective" emigration of African Americans to the Niger Valley, there to embark upon the civilizing mission of introducing evangelical Protestantism, expanding trade and commerce, and cultivating cotton and other crops that would compete with slave-grown produce to undermine slavery. His incipient Pan-Africanism was enhanced by his early contacts with Africans in New York City and his years in Jamaica, and it is likely that only illness prevented him from shifting his ministry to Africa in 1856, following the example of his longtime friend Alexander Crummell, who had earlier undertaken a mission to Liberia. Although opposed by anti-colonizationists such as Frederick Douglass, Garnet eventually won the support of many African nationalists, including Martin Delany, who joined the African Civilization Society in 1861. Even as the ACS gradually turned its missionary impulse toward meeting the relief and educational needs of the freed people during and after the Civil War, Garnet never relinquished his vision of African redemption.

Henry Highland Garnet

"You cannot be more oppressed than you have beenyou cannot suffer greater cruelties than you have already. Rather die freemen, than live to be slaves. Remember that you are three millions."

address to the slaves of the united states of america, delivered before the national convention of colored citizens. buffalo, new york, august 16, 1843. in the black abolitionist papers. vol.3., the united states, 1830-1846, edited by c. peter ripley. chapel hill: university of north carolina press, 1991, 403-412.

Garnet also viewed the Civil War as a grand opportunity for African Americans, who were destined for freedom, to lead in the redemption of the United States. This faith was sorely tested, however, by the New York City Draft Riots in July 1863, which took a heavy toll on black lives and property, endangering Garnet's life and resulting in the sacking of his church. He was a leader in the organized effort to aid victims of the violence. Undeterred, he continued at great personal risk to recruit black volunteers for the Union armies. Soon after he became minister to Washington, D.C.'s Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in 1864, he took up missionary work among the recently freed slaves flocking into the national capital. In February 1865 he was invited to deliver a sermon in the U.S. House of Representatives commemorating passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, the first African American so asked. His message was a call for national atonement: "Emancipate, enfranchise, educate, and give the blessings of the gospel to every American citizen" (Garnet's italics).

After the Civil War, those who had long been in the forefront of the liberation struggle were gradually replaced by another generation. Garnet left Washington in 1868 to assume the presidency of Avery College in Pittsburgh; he remained there for a year before returning to Shiloh Presbyterian. His beloved wife, Julia, died in 1871, and in 1878 he married Sarah Thompson, a feminist and educator. During the 1870s he continued to champion civil rights and other reform causes, notably the emancipation of blacks in Cuba. He also grew increasingly disillusioned by the failures of Reconstruction and was especially upset by the government's refusal to distribute land to the freed-people. And he came to believe that his lifelong efforts in the cause of liberation had gone largely unappreciated by his own people. In 1881, tired, in ill health, and against the advice of friends, he accepted the appointment as American minister to Liberia. He died in Liberia, and as was his wish, he was buried in the soil of Africa.

See also Abolition; African Civilization Society (AfCS); Delany, Martin R.; Douglass, Frederick; Pan-Africanism; Thirteenth Amendment


Litwack, Leon F., and August Meier, eds. Black Leaders in the Nineteenth Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Miller, Floyd J. The Search for a Black Nationality: Black Colonization and Emigration, 17871863. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975.

Ofari, Earl. "Let Your Motto Be Resistance": The Life and Thought of Henry Highland Garnet. Boston: Beacon Press, 1972.

Pasternak, Martin B. Rise Now and Fly to Arms: The Life of Henry Highland Garnet. New York: Garland, 1995.

Pease, Jane H., and William H. Pease. Bound with Them in Chains. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972.

Schor, Joel. Henry Highland Garnet: A Voice of Radicalism in the Nineteenth Century. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Stuckey, Sterling. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Swift, David E. Black Prophets of Justice: Activist Clergy Before the Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

otey m. scruggs (1996)
Updated bibliography 2005

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