Henry Highland Garnet
December 23, 1815 – February 13, 1882
Henry Highland Trusty was born into slavery in what is now Chesterville, Maryland. At the age of eight-years-old Trusty’s slave master died and he along with ten members of his family escaped after obtaining permission to attend a funeral. Upon arriving in the north, the group split up and George headed to Pennsylvania with his parents and sister. A year later the family relocated to the Lower East Side in New York City, joined the A.M.E. Church, and changed their surname to Garnet. They also changed their first names but there is no record of the name that was used before Henry.
Living in the north provided Garnet with the opportunity to attend school for the first time. He was first enrolled in school in Pennsylvania and later attended the African Free School in New York. Despite the potential threat of a violent response, Garnet and several classmates formed an abolitionist club, the Garrison Literary and Benevolent Association. Many of Garnet’s classmates would go on to become prominent figures in the abolitionist movement as well as other facets of society.
By age thirteen, Garnet was spending time away from New York City working aboard ships. Arriving home after one trip, he found out that his family had narrowly escaped a raid by slave catchers. In an attempt to lay low, the family had separated and gone into hiding which resulted in their furniture being stolen. For his safety, Garnet was sent to Jericho, Long Island to hide. While living on Long Island, Garnet worked as an indentured farm worker until a severe knee injury ended his contract. The leg was amputated at the hip several years later and Garnet used crutches for the rest of his life.
Following his injury, Garnet returned to New York City and enrolled at the Sunday school of the First Colored Presbyterian Church. Around this time he became more involved with religion and in addition to converting made plans to enter the ministry. Garnet and several other former classmates from the African Free School traveled to New Hampshire to study at the newly opened Noyes Academy.
Founded by abolitionists, the school was open to all races and both genders. But when students gave impassioned speeches at an abolitionist meeting locals destroyed the school in hopes of driving the students away and forcing it to close. After briefly returning to New York, Garnet and some of his classmates headed off again this time journeying to the Oneida Institute in Whitesboro, New York from which Garnet would graduate in 1840.
Settling in Troy, New York, Garnet continued studying theology, began teaching, and was ordained. During this time he also wrote for local abolitionist and religious newspapers and became involved with the Temperance Movement. Also, Garnet worked on initiatives in efforts to achieve voting rights for Black males.
In 1839, Garnet joined the Liberty Party and addressed a large meeting that was held in Boston. Over the next few years as he spoke on behalf of the party and at meetings, Garnet became more prominent in the political arena. After the Liberty Party lost power, Garnet shifted to the Republican Party. But his increased political activity and move away from reform towards activism soured his relationship with William Lloyd Garrison.
The relationship was formally severed when Garnet joined in the founding of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. The new organization was formed by eight Black members who’d split from the more traditional abolitionists. Around this time Garnet gave his “A Call to Rebellion” speech at the 1843 National Negro Convention. In the speech, he turned away from trying to convince White people to adopt abolitionism and instead encouraged slaves to revolt against slave owners.
Feeling a lack of progress towards equality in America Garnet began to consider the feasibility of Black people emigrating to improve their quality of life. He lived abroad in Geneva and Great Britain where he spoke as an abolitionist and spent time in Jamaica as a missionary. Illness forced him to return to America and used the time to promote Jamaica as a place to which Black Americans should consider immigrating which drew criticisms from Frederick Douglas.
During the Civil War Garnet first worked on campaigning for the creation of Black regiments. He then became a recruiter of Black soldiers and served as chaplain for the men who were stationed on Rikers Island. Towards the end of the war, Garnet moved to Washington, DC where he became pastor of a church. In 1865, Garnet became one of the first Black people to enter the Capitol when he became the first Black person to deliver a sermon in the chamber of the House of Representatives.
Despite beginning to physically and mentally decline in the mid-1870s, Garnet aspired to move to Liberia. Several of his childhood friends had moved to Liberia and Garnet campaigned to join them as minister to Liberia. Arriving in Monrovia on December 28, 1881, Garnet, unfortunately, passed away a little under two months later.
- “Garnet, Henry Highland.” 2019. Encyclopedia of World Biography. Encyclopedia.com. December 16, 2019. https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/social-sciences-and-law/social-reformers/henry-highland-garnet.
- “Henry Highland Garnet.” 2019. Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. April 15, 2019. https://www.biography.com/activist/henry-highland-garnet.
- Yee, Shirley. 2007. “Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882).” BLACKPAST.ORG. January 17, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/garnet-henry-highland-1815-1881/.
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