Henry Highland Garnet
December 23, 1815 – February 13, 1882
Minister, Abolitionist and Orator
Henry Highland 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. Traveling 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, Bethel, in Mott Street.
Henry Highland Garnet entered the African Free School in Mott Street in 1826. There he found an extraordinary group of school mates. 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 meeting in New York City easily lead 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. His mother had been sheltered by the family of a neighboring grocer. 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 protégé 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. Wright baptized Garnet, and Garnet later preached Wright's funeral sermon.
Garnet married Julia Ward Williams (1811--1870) in 1841, the year he was ordained an elder. Julia Williams was born in Charleston, South Carolina, but came to Boston at an early age. She studied at Prudence Crandall's school in Canterbury, Connecticut, which was suppressed by law, and also at Noyes Academy. She taught school in Boston for several years. After her marriage she was head of the Female Industrial School while the family lived in Jamaica. When she was back in New York, she ran a store at 174 West Thirtieth Street, and in Washington, in the 1860s, she worked with freedmen. The couple had three children: James Crummell (1844-1851); Mary Highland (born c.1845), and a second son (born 1850). Some sources say this son died; however, a 20-year old Henry Garnet is listed as living with his father in the Pittsburgh city directory of 1870--71. There was also an adopted daughter Stella Weims, a fugitive slave. Henry Highland Garnet was noted for his ability to establish rapport with children and for his respect for his wife. In his eulogy Alexander Crummell remarked, "I was both struck and charmed with the same gallantry displayed to the wife after marriage that he had shown her before." Julia Garnet died in 1870, and about 1879 he married Susan Smith Thompkins (1831--1911), a noted New York teacher and school principal.
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 were 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.
The mob also surrounded the house where Garnet and some of the other blacks were living, and someone fired into the room he was occupying. That evening the mob gathered again but Garnet fired a shot which discouraged them. Although Garnet was ill with a fever, he and the two friends set out for New York. They crossed the mountains to Albany and came down the Hudson. On the steamboat blacks were forced to travel on the open foredeck. Garnet was now very sick, and his friends spread their coats under him and shielded him from the sun with an umbrella. On his arrival in New York, Garnet spent nearly two months in bed.
Fortunately, there was another institution which opened its doors to black students, and this time the local townspeople did not rise up physically to reject them. In early 1836 Garnet joined Crummell and Sidney at Oneida Institute in Whitesboro, New York. Garnet began in the preparatory department while his fellow students were listed as sophomores. 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.
Establishes 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 (unfortunately only the minutes of the 1844 convention survive today). 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.
Gerrit Smith, a wealthy white abolitionist, decided to increase the number of black voters by giving some of his land to black farmers in 1846. Garnet was one of his agents in delegating land; most of his choices were still farming several years later.
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. Garnet gave further proof of his disaffection in 1843. The August 1843 National Negro Convention in Albany, New York, gathered more than 70 delegates in the first such convention since the early 1830s. Garnet was a prominent member; in particular he was chairman of the nine-member business committee, which was charged with organizing the issues for discussion. He electrified the convention with "An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America," in which he urged slaves to take action to gain their own freedom: You had far better all die--die immediately, than live slaves, and entail your wretchedness upon your posterity. ... However much you and all of us may desire it, there is not much hope of redemption without the shedding of blood. If you must bleed, let it all come at once--rather die freemen, than live to be the slaves.
The audience was profoundly moved: some wept, others sat with clenched fists. Frederick Douglass, who was not ready to abandon Garrisonian moral suasion, joined with others in opposition to Garnet's position. Douglass spoke for more than an hour against adopting the speech. The rules were suspended to allow Garnet to reply for an hour and a half in a speech, which James McCune Smith said was Garnet's greatest. Unfortunately neither Douglass's speech nor Garnet's reply survive today. The original address was referred to the business committee for moderation and eventually failed to be adopted by one vote.
Garnet's call for action echoes that of David Walker's Appeal of 1829, and Garnet underlined the similarity in 1848, when he first published his speech together with the Appeal to support the Free Soil Party's campaign for the presidency. Part of the money for the publication is said to have come from abolitionist John Brown.
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.
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. It is reported that the church was in parlous condition, but Garnet soon had it flourishing again. His reputation as an orator and spokesperson grew, and his sermons were often printed in their entirety.
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. Criticism grew when Garnet founded the African Civilization Society in 1859. He explained the society's aims in an 1860 speech, reprinted in Ofari's book "Let Your Motto Be Resistance," "We believe that Africa is to be redeemed by Christian civilization and that the great work is to be chiefly achieved by the free and voluntary emigration of enterprising colored people."
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.
A side-effect of Garnet's support of emigration and his trip to England in 1861 was an attempt of the board of trustees of Shiloh Church to force him out as pastor. The controversy ended in 1862 when the congregation accepted the resignation of the entire board by a wide majority.
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 which worked to overcome the unfavorable conditions initially facing the men due to wide-scale corruption and anti-black sentiments in the city.
Garnet's prominence made him one of the prime targets of a white working-class mob during the July 1863 draft riots in New York City when blacks and leading abolitionists were assailed. The rioters appeared on Thirtieth Street, where Garnet resided, calling for him by name. Fortunately his daughter had torn off the brass door plate with an axe, so the house escaped plundering, and several white neighbors helped conceal him and his family. In the aftermath of the insurrection, Garnet headed the distribution of charitable contributions collected by a committee of white merchants.
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.
Alexander Crummell reported that Garnet went into a physical and mental decline about 1876 and that "sorrow and discouragement fell upon his soul, and at times the wounded spirit sighed for release." In this mood, in spite of the discouragement of his friends, Garnet actively lobbied for the position of minister to Liberia, which he obtained. Crummell recorded Garnet as saying: Please the Lord I can only safely cross the ocean, land on the coast of Africa, look around upon its green fields, tread the soil of my ancestors, live if but a few weeks; then I shall be glad to lie down and be buried beneath its sod.
Garnet's wish was granted. He preached his farewell sermon at Shiloh on November 6, 1881. He landed in Monrovia on December 28 and died on February, 12, 1882. He was given a state funeral by the Liberian government, and Edward Blyden preached the funeral sermon. When Alexander Crummell delivered his eulogy of Garnet in Washington, D.C., Frederick Douglass, his former opponent, and Henry McNeil Turner, Garnet's intellectual heir as leader of the emigration and black nationalist movement in the later nineteenth century, were platform guests.
Henry Highland Garnet was six-feet tall and a handsome man. Crummell, whose standards were high, said that he was no thorough scholar due to his constant illnesses but that he was outstanding for sheer intelligence and flair. Speaking from his own experience, James McCune Smith said that few persons who faced him in debate on the platform cared to do so a second time. His friends testified to his wit and humor, which made him popular, even among children.
Garnet was an important figure among black abolitionists. He was independent in forming his own views and bold in expressing them. At an early date he helped articulate many of the themes of black nationalism. He wished to build up black-controlled institutions, and in the early 1840s he was calling unsuccessfully for the establishment of a black printing company and a black college. He consistently supported black efforts of self-improvement, and included emigration as one of these efforts. It was his conviction that blacks must take their control of destiny that led him in 1843 to call upon slaves to take action and end slavery.