Henry Highland Garnet: Liberty or Death!

Henry Highland Garnet (1815–1882) was a radical abolitionist, public speaker, minister, and educator. 1843 he held his most famous speech “Call for Rebellion”, and in 1865 he became the first black person to speak before the House of Representatives.

Henry Highland Garnet was born as a slave in Maryland, on December 23, 1815. In 1824, his family escaped through Wilmington, Delaware with help of the Underground Railroad to New York City, where Henry attended the African Free School from 1826 to 1833. Among his classmates were George T. Downing (fellow NYC abolitionist) Charles L. Reason (first black college professor in the US), and Ira Aldridge (first internationally renowned actor). He then studied at the High School for Colored Youth, established by the Phoenix Society, a mutual aid society for African Americans.

In 1834 Garnet established together with David Ruggles (1810-1849) and William Howard Day (1825-1900) the Garrison Literary and Benevolent Association, a literary society for boys under 20 years of age, named after abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

Henry Highland Garnet started to study at the interracial Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire, which had opened in March 1835 but was destroyed in August of the same year by a mob of segregationists. Garnet continued to study theology at the abolitionist Oneida Institute in New York.

When the American Anti-Slavery Society split into over several issues (women in leadership positions, participation in the political arena, organized religion) in 1840 into “Garrisonians” and “Tappanites”, Henry Highland Garnet (together with Theodore Sedgwick Wright, Samuel Eli Cornish, and Christopher Rush among others) joined Lewis and Arthur Tappan who founded the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery-Society.

In 1841 he married Julia Williams, a fellow abolitionist whom he had met at the Noyes Academy and who had also completed her studies at the Oneida Institute. Together they had three children (only one survived into adulthood).

From 1842-1848 Garnet served as pastor of the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church in Troy. In Troy, he published an abolitionist newspaper, the National Watchman, together with William Gustavus Allen.

At the 1843 National Convention of Colored Citizens, in Buffalo, NY, Henry Highland Garnet held his famous and controversial “An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America”, known as the “Call to Rebellion” speech, encouraging slaves to rise up against their masters and free themselves. Frederick Douglass – like many other abolitionists – considered Garnet as too militant and radical and feared his ideas would cause fear among whites and be counterproductive. Douglass argued against Garnet’s speech, and in a vote, the Convention did not endorse his approach.

Brethren, the time has come when you must act for yourselves. It is an old and true saying that, “if hereditary bondmen would be free, they must themselves strike the blow.” … Brethren, arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties. Now is the day and the hour. Let every slave throughout the land do this, and the days of slavery are numbered. You cannot be more oppressed than you have been—you cannot suffer greater cruelties than you have already. Rather die freemen than live to be slaves. Remember that you are four millions! … Let your motto be resistance! resistance! resistance! No oppressed people have ever secured their liberty without resistance. What kind of resistance you had better make, you must decide by the circumstances that surround you, and according to the suggestion of expediency.”
Henry HIghland Garnet: An Address to the Slaves of the United States (National Convention of Colored Citizens, Buffalo, New York, August 16, 1843)

In 1850, Garnet was invited to hold antislavery lectures in England and Scotland. In 1852 he took on an assignment as a missionary in Jamaica but returned to America after three years.

Frustrated with the treatment of black people in the US Garnet had begun to support the emigration of black Americans to Liberia, the West Indies, or Mexico during the 1840s and 50s. In 1858, he founded the African Civilization Society advocating for the emigration of educated African Americans to Africa to serve as missionaries and lead the development of the continent and its people. This was an unpopular opinion among most abolitionists (such as Frederick Douglass, James McCune Smith, and George T. Downing).

However, once the Civil War started, Garnet gave up his emigration ambitions and joined them in their effort to fight not only for the Union but against slavery. During the 1863 Draft Riots, mobs of white New Yorkers attacked black people, destroyed their homes, and robbed their businesses. Henry Highland Garnet, together with Rev. Charles Bennett Ray, organized support for the victims of the riot. Garnet also helped to recruit US Colored Troops. To support black soldiers, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he served as pastor from 1864-1866.

On February 12, 1865 – marking the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery on January 31 – Henry Highland Garnet was invited to give a sermon before the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first black man speaking in the Capitol Building.

“Let slavery die. It has had a long and fair trial. God himself has pleaded against it. The enlightened nations of the earth have condemned it. Its death warrant is signed by God and man. Do not commute its sentence. Give it no respite, but let it be ignominiously executed … Let freemen and patriots mete out complete and equal justice to all men and thus prove to mankind the superiority of our democratic, republican government … Emancipate, enfranchise, educate, and give the blessings of the gospel to every American citizen. … Then shall the people of other countries … behold a Republic that is sufficiently strong to outlive the ruin and desolations of civil war, having the magnanimity to do justice to the poorest and weakest of her citizens. Thus shall we give to the world the form of a model Republic, founded on the principles of justice and humanity and Christianity, in which the burdens of war and the blessings of peace are equally borne and enjoyed by all.
Henry HIghland Garnet: Let the Monster perish (February 12, 1865)

After the war, Garnet became president of Avery College in Pittsburgh and then pastor at the Shiloh Presbyterian Church in New York City. His wife Julia died in 1870, and in 1879 he married Sarah Smith Tompkins, abolitionist, teacher, and first black principal in New York’s public schools. In 1881, he was appointed by President Garfield to serve as US Minister and Counsel General in Liberia, finally fulfilling his dream of going to Africa. He died there on February 13, 1882.

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