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Ira AldridgeIra Aldridge
Charles C. AndrewsCharles C. Andrews
Samuel E. CornishSamuel E. Cornish
Alexander CrummellAlexander Crummell
Henry Highland GarnetHenry Highland Garnet
James McCune SmithJames McCune Smith
John TeasmanJohn Teasman

Henry Highland Garnet

Henry Highland Garnet was born a slave in Maryland in 1815. In 1824, his family received permission to attend a funeral and capitalized on the opportunity to secure their freedom. The Garnets arrived in New York City in 1825, and Henry entered the African Free School on Mott Street in 1826. There he met and formed lifelong friendships with James McCune Smith and Alexander Crummell, among others. In 1834, Garnet and some of his classmates formed their own club, the Garrison Literary and Benevolent Association. Because the society was named after a controversial abolitionist, the public school where the group wanted to meet insisted that the group first change their name. To do otherwise would be to risk mob violence. The club decided to keep their name and instead change their venue. The first meeting (PDF) of the group garnered over 150 African American people under 20—a powerful indicator of the dedication of the younger generation to nationwide abolition.

Perhaps drawing on his studies in navigation and seamanship at the New York African Free School, Garnet made two sea voyages to Cuba in 1828. After another sea voyage in 1829, he returned to learn that his family had separated in the hopes of escaping slave catchers. Enraged and worried, Garnet wandered up and down Broadway with a knife. Eventually friends were able to locate him and spirit him off the Long Island to hide. Garnet is perhaps most famous for his radical speech of 1843, "An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America." In this speech, Garnet breaks with tradition. Instead of hoping to convince free people (primarily free white people, of course) of the evils of slavery, Garnet speaks directly to those enslaved, urging them to rebel against their masters. Frederick Douglass, who was still committed to abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison's approach of moral suasion, spoke out against the speech, while James McCune Smith expressed admiration for it.

Garnet further radicalized his position when he supported the colonization movement, which was largely unpopular among the black community. Garnet moved to England in 1850 and spoke on abolitionist themes. He went to Jamaica as a missionary in 1852. In 1859 he founded the African Civilization Society and in an 1860 speech wrote of his belief that "Africa is to be redeemed by Christian civilization."

Because of Garnet's outspoken views and national reputation, he was a prime target of a working-class mob during the July 1863 draft riots in New York City. Rioters mobbed the street where Garnet lived and called for him by name. Fortunately several white neighbors helped to conceal Garnet and his family.

In February 12, 1865, Garnet became the first black person to deliver a sermon in the House of Representatives. In 1876 Garnet began a physical and mental decline and expressed a great wish to die and be buried on African soil. He was able to realize this wish. He died in Africa on February 12, 1882, and was given a state funeral by the Liberian government.

Engraving of Henry Highland Garnet.

Engraving of Henry Highland Garnet.

New-York Historical Society