Henry Highland Garnet
Born(1815-12-23)December 23, 1815
DiedFebruary 13, 1882(1882-02-13) (aged 66)
Monrovia, Liberia
Alma materOneida Institute
SpouseJulia Ward Williams
ReligionChristian (Presbyterian)

Henry Highland Garnet (December 23, 1815 – February 13, 1882) was an American abolitionist, minister, educator and orator. Having escaped as a child from slavery in Maryland with his family,[1] he grew up in New York City. He was educated at the African Free School and other institutions, and became an advocate of militant abolitionism. He became a minister and based his drive for abolitionism in religion.

Garnet was a prominent member of the movement that led beyond moral suasion toward more political action. Renowned for his skills as a public speaker, he urged black Americans to take action and claim their own destinies. ("He saw little hope for freeing the slaves except by their own efforts."[2]) For a period, he supported emigration of American free blacks to Mexico, Liberia, or the West Indies, but the American Civil War ended that effort. In 1841, he married abolitionist Julia Ward Williams and they had a family. Stella (Mary Jane) Weems, a runaway slave from Maryland, lived with the Garnets. She may have been adopted by them or employed as their governess. When Henry preached against slavery, he brought her up to talk about her own experiences and about her family still enslaved in Maryland. On one such trip in England, Garnet was hired by a Scottish church as a missionary. The family moved to Jamaica in 1852, and soon caught yellow fever. Stella died and was buried there. The rest, while sickened, boarded a ship for America. After the war, the couple worked in Washington, D.C.[citation needed]

On Sunday, February 12, 1865, he delivered a sermon in the U.S. House of Representatives while it was not in session, becoming the first African American to speak in that chamber,[3][4] on the occasion of Congress's passage on January 31 of the Thirteenth Amendment, ending slavery.

Early life and education

Lithograph of African Free School which Garnet attended

Henry Garnet was born into slavery in Chesterville (then New Market), Kent County, Maryland, on December 23, 1815.[5][failed verification] "[H]is grandfather was an African chief and warrior, and in a tribal fight he was captured and sold to slave-traders who brought him to this continent where he was owned by Colonel William Spencer."[6] According to James McCune Smith, Garnet's father was George Trusty and his enslaved mother was "a woman of extraordinary energy."[7]: 18 

In 1824, the family, which included a total of 11 members, secured permission to attend a funeral, and from there they all escaped in a covered wagon, via Wilmington, Delaware, where they were helped by the Quaker and Underground Railroad stationmaster Thomas Garrett.[citation needed]

When Garnet was ten years old, his family reunited and moved to New York City, where from 1826 through 1831, Garnet attended the African Free School. His education there was interrupted in 1828 when Garnet had to find employment, twice making the sea route to Cuba as a cabin boy[7]: 23  and once as a cook and steward on a schooner running between New York City and Alexandria, Virginia. It was when he returned from the latter voyage in 1829 that he found that his family had been located by slave hunters. His sister, Eliza (born Mary),[a] was arrested, but was able to free herself by proving residence in the free state of New York. His father jumped off of the roof of a two-story building to escape the slave catchers. Garnet, likely with his mother in mind, who had escaped by running to a corner store, took a knife and walked onto Broadway, waiting to be found and confronted by the slave catchers. His friends found him instead and took him out of the city to Jericho, Long Island, where he stayed under the protection of Quaker Thomas Willis. He then became an indentured servant to Captain Epenetus Smith of Smithtown, Long Island, but suffered an injury to his right leg and managed to be released from his indentures later in 1829, whereupon he returned to the African Free School for a year.[7]: 25–27 

While in school, Garnet began his career in abolitionism. His classmates at the African Free School included Charles L. Reason, George T. Downing, and Ira Aldridge.[6] From 1831, he continued his studies at the Phoenix High School for Colored Youth. While a student there he began to attend a Sunday school at the First Colored Presbyterian Church and was baptized as a Christian by Reverend Theodore Sedgwick Wright, with whom he was friends for the remainder of Wright's life.[7]: 28–29 

In 1834, Garnet, William H. Day, and David Ruggles established the all-male Garrison Literary and Benevolent Association; "Garrison" is a reference to the famous abolitionist Wm. Lloyd Garrison, and indicates the character of the association. It garnered mass support among whites, but the club ultimately had to move due to racist feelings.[citation needed]

Oneida Institute, Whitesboro, New York

In 1835, Garnet enrolled at the new Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire, but anti-abolitionists soon destroyed the school building and forced the Negro students out of town. He completed his education at the Oneida Institute in Whitesboro, New York, which had recently begun admitting all races. Here he was acclaimed for his wit, brilliance, and rhetorical skills. The year after graduation in 1839, he injured his knee playing sports.[citation needed] It never fully healed,[b] and his lower leg had to be amputated in 1840[7]: 33  or 1841.[6]: 658–659 

Julia Williams

In 1841, Garnet married Julia Ward Williams, whom he had met as a fellow student at the Noyes Academy. She had also completed her education at the Oneida Institute. Together they had three children, only one of whom survived to adulthood.[6]


Garnet served as pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., from 1864 to 1866. The church is shown here as it was in about 1899.
The Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church today.

In 1839, Garnet moved with his family to Troy, New York, where he taught school and studied theology. In 1842, Garnet became pastor of the Liberty Street Presbyterian church, a position he held for six years. With his friend William G. Allen, also an Oneida alumnus, he published the National Watchman, an abolitionist newspaper. Closely identifying with the church, Garnet supported the temperance movement and became a strong advocate of abolishing slavery.[6]

Garnet sheltered fugitive slaves in his Liberty Street church, and philanthropist Gerrit Smith announced in his church his plan for giving grants of land to disenfranchised Black men (see Timbuctoo, New York).

He later returned to New York City, where he joined the American Anti-Slavery Society and frequently spoke at abolitionist conferences. One of his most famous speeches, "Call to Rebellion", was delivered to the 1843 National Convention of Colored Citizens,[1] in Buffalo, New York. "Upon the conclusion of the Negro national convention of 1843, Garnet led a state convention of Negroes assembled in Rochester".[8]

These conventions by black activists were called to work for abolition and equal rights. Garnet said that slaves should act for themselves to achieve total emancipation. He promoted an armed rebellion as the most effective way to end slavery. Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, along with many other abolitionists both black and white, thought that Garnet's ideas were too radical and could damage the cause by arousing too much fear and resistance among whites.[9]

In 1848 Garnet relocated from Troy to Peterboro, New York, home of the great abolition activist Gerrit Smith.[10] Garnet supported Smith's Liberty Party, a reform party that was eventually absorbed into the Republican Party.

Anti-slavery role

Women's participation in the abolitionist movement was controversial and resulted in a split in the American Anti-Slavery Society. Arthur Tappan, Lewis Tappan, "and a group of Black ministers, including Henry Highland Garnet" founded the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (AFAS).[11] It "was committed to political abolitionism and to male leadership at the top levels."[12]

By 1849, Garnet began to support emigration of blacks to Mexico, Liberia, or Haiti, where he thought they would have more opportunities. In support of this, he founded the African Civilization Society. Similar to the British African Aid Society, it sought to establish a West African colony in Yorubaland (part of present-day Nigeria). Garnet advocated a kind of Black nationalism in the United States, which included establishing Black colonies in the sparsely-inhabited Western territories. Other prominent members of this movement included minister Daniel Payne, J. Sella Martin, Rufus L. Perry, Henry M. Wilson, and Amos Noë Freeman.[13]

In 1850, Garnet went to Great Britain at the invitation of Anna Richardson of the free produce movement, which opposed slavery by rejecting the use of products produced by slave labor.[14] He was a popular lecturer, and spent two and a half years lecturing. At first, the work separated Garnet from his family, who remained back in New York State. While he was abroad, his seven-year-old son, James Crummell Garnet, died on March 1, 1851, while Garnet was abroad. His wife Julia, his young son Henry, and their adopted daughter Stella Weims joined Garnet in Great Britain later that year.[15]

In 1852, Garnet was sent to Kingston, Jamaica, as a missionary. He and his family spent three years there; his wife Julia Garnet led an industrial school for girls. Garnet had health problems that led to the family returning to the United States.

After John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, Garnet in a sermon "declared [it] to be the duty of every man who loved the cause of freedom to declare that the Harper's Ferry movement was right, and that any one who would not say so boldly had much better say nothing at all."[16] He was described as "friend and admirer" of "the heroic John Brown".[17]

In 1859 Garnet was president of the African Civilization Society, whose declared goal was "to engage in the great work of christianizing and civilizing Africa".[18] When the Civil War started, Garnet's hopes ended for emigration as a solution for American Blacks. In the three-day New York draft riots of July 1863, mobs attacked Blacks and Black-owned buildings. Garnet and his family escaped attack because his daughter quickly chopped their nameplate off their door before the mobs found them.[19] He organized a committee for sick soldiers and served as almoner to the New York Benevolent Society for victims of the mob.[6]

When the federal government approved creating Black units, Garnet helped with recruiting United States Colored Troops. He moved with his family to Washington, DC, so that he could support the black soldiers and the war effort. He preached to many of them while serving as pastor of the prominent Liberty (Fifteenth) Street Presbyterian Church from 1864 until 1866. During this time, Garnet was the first Black minister to preach to the US House of Representatives, addressing them on February 12, 1865, about the end of slavery, on occasion of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.[20]

Later life

After the war in 1868, Garnet was appointed president of Avery College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Later he returned to New York City as a pastor at the Shiloh Presbyterian Church (formerly the First Colored Presbyterian Church, and now St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem).[6]

He remained politically active upon his return to New York, and was known to provide support to the Cuban independence movement.[21] In 1878, while living at 102 West 3rd Street,[22] in a neighborhood often referred to as Little Africa, Garnet hosted a reception for Cuban revolutionary leader Antonio Maceo.[23]

His first wife Julia Williams died at their home in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, on January 7, 1870.[24] In 1875, Garnet married Sarah Smith Tompkins,[25][full citation needed] who was a New York teacher and school principal, suffragist, and community organizer.[26]

Ambassador to Liberia

Garnet's last wish was to go, even for a few weeks, to Liberia, where his daughter Mary Garnet Barboza was,[27] and to die there. He was appointed as the U.S. Minister (ambassador) to Liberia, where he arrived on December 28, 1881,[6] and died February 13 of malaria.[5][27] Garnet was given a state funeral by the Liberian government. As described by Alexander Crummell:

[T]hey buried him like a prince, this princely man, with the blood of a long line of chieftains in his veins, in the soil of his fathers. The entire military forces of the capital of the republic turned out to render a last tribute of respect and honor. The President and his cabinet, the ministry of every name, the president, professors and students of the college, large bodies of citizens from the river settlement, as well as the townsmen, attended his obsequies as mourners. A noble tribute was accorded him by Rev. E. W. Blyden, D. D., LL. D., one of the finest scholars and thinkers in the nation. Minute guns were fired at every footfall of the solemn procession.[6]

He was buried at Palm Grove Cemetery in Monrovia.[27]

Frederick Douglass, who had not been on speaking terms with Garnet for many years because of their differences, still mourned Garnet's passing and noted his achievements.[28]

Legacy and honors

See also


  1. ^ Garnet's father changed his family's given names when they escaped slavery and also changed its surname to Garnet from Trusty.
  2. ^ Garnet reportedly had white swelling of his diseased leg that became symptomatic during Garnet's teenage years, most likely as a complication of tuberculous arthritis, a progressive disease that may cause predisposition to additional trauma.


  1. ^ a b "Henry Highland Garnet". Encyclopedia Britannica. January 1, 2023. Retrieved February 8, 2023.
  2. ^ Sernett, Milton C. (2004). Abolition's Axe. Beriah Green, Oneida Institute, and the Black Freedom Struggle. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press. p. 55. ISBN 0815623704.
  3. ^ "The First African American to Speak in the House Chamber | US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives". history.house.gov. Retrieved February 8, 2023.
  4. ^ Garnet, Henry Highland (1865). A memorial discourse; by Henry Highland Garnet, delivered in the hall of the House of Representatives, Washington City, D.C. on Sabbath, February 12, 1865. With an introduction, by James McCune Smith, M.D. Philadelphia: Joseph M. Wilson. Archived from the original on May 14, 2020. Retrieved September 8, 2019.
  5. ^ a b "Garnet, Henry Highland, 1815–1882". SNAC. Retrieved February 11, 2023.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Simmons, William J. (1887). "Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, D. D.". Men of mark; eminent, progressive and rising. Cleveland, Ohio: New York, Arno Press. pp. 656–661. Archived from the original on May 14, 2020. Retrieved January 5, 2020.
  7. ^ a b c d e Smith, James McCune (1865). "Sketch of the life and labors of Rev. Henry Highland Garnet". A memorial discourse; by Henry Highland Garnet, delivered in the hall of the House of Representatives, Washington City, D.C. on Sabbath, February 12, 1865. With an introduction, by James McCune Smith, M.D. Philadelphia: Joseph Wilson. pp. 17–68. Archived from the original on April 7, 2016. Retrieved September 30, 2022.
  8. ^ Schor, Joel (1977). Henry Highland Garnet: A Voice of Black Radicalism in the Nineteenth Century. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. p. 61. ISBN 0837189373.
  9. ^ Schor, Joel (January 1, 1979). "The Rivalry Between Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet". The Journal of Negro History. 64 (1): 30–38. doi:10.2307/2717124. ISSN 0022-2992. JSTOR 2717124. S2CID 150276836. Archived from the original on June 24, 2021. Retrieved June 21, 2021.
  10. ^ "(Untitled)". The North Star. Rochester, New York. December 8, 1848. p. 1.
  11. ^ White, Deborah Gray; Bay, Mia; Martin, Waldo E. Jr. (2013). Freedom on my mind : a history of African Americans, with documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's. p. 284. ISBN 9780312648831.
  12. ^ White, Deborah Gray; Bay, Mia; Martin, Waldo E. Jr. (2013). Freedom on my mind: A History of African Americans, with documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's. p. 284. ISBN 9780312648831.
  13. ^ Taylor, Clarence (1994). The Black Churches of Brooklyn, Columbia University Press. pp. 19, 26. ISBN 9780231099806
  14. ^ Holcomb, Julie L. (2016). Moral Commerce: Quakers and the Transatlantic Boycott of the Slave Labor Economy. Cornell University Press. p. 189. ISBN 9781501706622.
  15. ^ Duane, Anna Mae (2020). Educated for Freedom: The Incredible Story of Two Fugitive Schoolboys Who Grew Up to Change a Nation. New York: NYU Press. pp. 146–150. ISBN 9781479847471.
  16. ^ "An Incident of the Rebellion". Baltimore Sun. October 25, 1859. p. 1. Archived from the original on May 14, 2020. Retrieved January 5, 2020.
  17. ^ "Seeking equality abroad". The New York Times. December 29, 1878. p. 5. ProQuest 93646081. Archived from the original on July 10, 2021. Retrieved July 25, 2020.
  18. ^ "African Civilization Society of New York". Anti-Slavery Reporter and Aborigines' Friend. Vol. 7, no. 11. November 1, 1859. p. 262.
  19. ^ Schecter, Barnet (2009). The Devil's Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. p. 154. ISBN 0802715087
  20. ^ Garnet, Henry Highland (1865). A memorial discourse; by Henry Highland Garnet, delivered in the hall of the House of Representatives, Washington City, D.C. on Sabbath, February 12, 1865. With an introduction, by James McCune Smith, M.D. Philadelphia: Joseph Wilson. Retrieved June 9, 2019.
  21. ^ Foner, Philip (1977). Antonio Maceo: The 'Bronze Titan' of Cuba's Struggle for Independence. New York: Monthly Review Press. p. 88. ISBN 9780853454809.
  22. ^ Digital Collections, The New York Public Library. "(New York City directory) New York City directory, (1879)". The New York Public Library, Astor, Lennox, and Tilden Foundation. Archived from the original on February 25, 2019. Retrieved February 25, 2019.
  23. ^ Mirabal, Nancy Raquel (2017). Suspect Freedoms: The Racial and Sexual Politics of Cubanidad in New York, 1823–1957. New York: NYU Press. p. 88. ISBN 9780814761120.
  24. ^ Obituary, National Anti-Slavery Standard, February 12, 1870
  25. ^ Certificate of Marriage, State of New York
  26. ^ Polcino, Christine Ann (Fall 2004). "Biography: Garnet, Henry Highland". Literary and Cultural Heritage Map of Pennsylvania Writers. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University. Archived from the original on May 15, 2013. Retrieved March 1, 2010.
  27. ^ a b c Barnes, Kenneth C. (2004). Journey of Hope: The Back-to-Africa Movement in Arkansas in the Late 1800s. UNC Press. p. 154. ISBN 0-8078-2879-3.
  28. ^ "The Key to Kent County History". Historical Society of Kent County.
  29. ^ Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
  30. ^ C. W. Boyd, Educator, Dies; Formed Garnet High, Charleston Daily Mail, February 1, 1951, p. 30. “Garnet High School,” National Register of Historic Places Nomination, Archived February 12, 2019, at the Wayback Machine

Further reading

Government offices Preceded byJohn H. Smythe United States Minister to Liberia June 30, 1881 – February 13, 1882 Succeeded byJohn H. Smythe