Henry Highland Garnet


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(1815–1882), orator, minister, and abolitionist.

An antislavery radical, Henry Highland Garnet is best known for “An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America” (1843), a speech delivered in Buffalo at the National Convention of Colored Citizens. In the “Address” and later texts, he advocated active resistance to slavery, urging slaves to take freedom for themselves. Deeply influenced by David Walker's Appeal (1829), Garnet argued that slaves had a moral obligation to resist slavery, using violence when necessary.

Garnet's thinking emerged from an activist-nationalist tradition within African American culture passed on to him by his family. In 1815, he was born into an enslaved family living on a Maryland plantation. His father, the son of a Mandingo leader, took enormous pride in his family's heritage. When Garnet was nine, they escaped to New York City. In 1829, while he was at sea serving as a cabin boy, slave catchers pursued his family, apprehending his sister and forcing the rest to scatter. The event had a profound impact on Garnet, who thereafter began carrying a large knife.

After studying with Theodore Wright, an eminent African American Presbyterian minister and abolitionist, and attending the New York African Free School, Garnet continued his schooling and further established his abolitionist ties by attending the Noyes Academy (an interracial school in Canaan, New Hampshire) and the Oneida Institute, where he graduated in 1840. During the 1840s Garnet developed a busy career as a minister and antislavery activist, editing and writing for newspapers, lecturing, working in the convention movement, and campaigning for the Liberty Party. In 1848, he published The Past and Present Condition, and The Destiny, of the Colored Race, elaborating his ideas on abolition and emigration.

Following his departure in 1850 for antislavery lecturing in Great Britain and Germany and missionary work in Jamaica, Garnet's ideas about slave resistance, violence, and emigration gained growing acceptance among abolitionists, influencing militants like John Brown. Garnet returned in 1855 to pastor Shiloh Presbyterian Church in New York City, succeeding his former mentor, Theodore Wright. During the Civil War, he pastored the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., and recruited African Americans for the Union Army. In 1865, he became the first African American to deliver a sermon before the U.S. House of Representatives.

After the war, Garnet campaigned for civil rights, championed Cuban independence, and developed his always keen interest in Africa and the West Indies. In 1881, he accepted an appointment as Minister Resident and Consul General to Liberia, where he died the following year.

Joel Schor, Henry Highland Garnet: A Voice of Black Radicalism in the Nineteenth Century, 1977.Sterling Stuckey, “A Last Stern Struggle: Henry Highland Garnet and Liberation Theory” in Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, eds. Leon Litwack and August Meier, 1988, pp. 129–147.Martin B. Pasternak, Rise Now and Fly to Arms: The Life of Henry Highland Garnet, 1995.Stanley Harrold, The Rise of Aggressive Abolitionism: Addresses to the Slaves, 2004.

— Gregory Eiselein

Subjects: United States History — Literature.

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