Rev. Henry Highland Garnet was an 19th century slave abolitionist, educator, theologist and Pan-Africanist that you may not know much about. A prominent figure in the movement to overthrow slavery, Garnet used religion as his platform to advocate for slave rebellions. His impassioned words about oppression were deemed too radical, drawing criticism from his rival, Frederick Douglass.
Born into slavery in 1815, Garnet and his family escaped from enslavement in Maryland and settled in New York where he was educated at the African Free School (a school for children of slaves and free black children), and the Phoenix High School for Colored Youth. He graduated from the Onieda Theological Institute in 1838.
Garnett preached that no man can be free if his brethren remained enslaved. He also drove the belief that it was better to die a free man, than to live as a slave. His infamous 1843 “Call to Rebellion” is basically the “by any means necessary” of it’s time. Using Denmark Vesey, Nat Tuner and Joseph Cinqué led revolts, as examples of the ultimate sacrifice for freedom, Garnett called for slaves to rebel against their white oppressors:
It is in your power so to torment the God-cursed slaveholders that they will be glad to let you go free. If the scale was turned, and black men were the masters and white men the slaves, every destructive agent and element would be employed to lay the oppressor low. Danger and death would hang over their heads day and night.
You act as though, you were made for the special use of these devils. You act as though your daughters were born to pamper the lusts of your masters and overseers. And worse than all, you tamely submit while your lords tear your wives from your embraces and defile them before your eyes. In the name of God, we ask you, are you men? Where is the blood of your fathers? Has it all run out of your veins?
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. Brethren, adieu! Trust in the living God. Labor for the peace of the human race, and remember that you are FOUR MILLIONS.”
The fiery rhetoric may have been a little too much to handle for Douglass and other abolitionists, who condemned Garnett’s words. His speech was also rejected by the National Negro Convention after multiple submissions.
Douglass championed a more conservative, nonresistance taught by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Douglass’ views likely became more moderate throughout his life, and he was fervent in speaking out against America, most notable outlining the country’s hypocrisies in his 4th of July Speech :
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.
There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”
Having secretly taught himself how to read and write as a child, Douglass subscribed to the belief that “knowledge” was the key to freedom. Like, Garnet, he escaped slavery in Maryland and fled to New York City in the mid-1800s. He stayed in the safe house of Black abolitionist David Ruggles, and went on to marry his first wife, Anna. He also joined the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church whose notable members including Soujourner Truth and Harrier Tubman. An active church member, Douglass began attending abolitionist meetings, and wrote passionately about his hatred for slavery. With Garrison’s encouragement, he became an abolitionist leader.
Douglass penned a number of speeches and essays addressing the inhumanity of slavery. His 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave sold thousands of copies and was translated into three languages. In 1845, Douglass toured Ireland and Great Britain for two years holding lectures and acquainting himself with the British abolitionists movement. He later returned to the states and launched the North Star abolitionist newspaper, but began to distance himself from Garrison as he later deemed his ideologies and actions (like publicly burning of the U.S. Constitution for encouraging slavery) as too radical. By 1846, Douglass became a legally free man after his supporters raised money to buy his freedom from Hugh Auld, the brother of Douglass’ slave master, for around $700.
Douglass was both an abolitionist and proponent of gender equality. He gave a speech at the Seneca Falls Convention, the first reported convention for (white) women’s rights held in the U.S., where he was the only Black attendee. As the (white) women’s rights movement began to attach itself with the anti-slavery movement, Douglass’ views became somewhat moderate, although he remained against rebellions and continued to believe education was the only anecdote to oppression.
Garnett, meanwhile, became a supporter of Blacks emigrating to Mexico, Liberia and the West Indies to attain better opportunities. His thought was to undercut slavery economically by producing goods that would compete with those from slave labor. Garnett also took his message overseas, traveling to England and Scotland before landing in Jamaica for missionary work with his wife, abolitionist Julia Williams, in 1852. He returned to the U.S. several years later to deal with health issues.
After the Civil War and slavery came to an end, the Reconstruction period began, but the stronghold of systematic white supremacy never loosened its grip. Despite the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, Jim Crow laws prohibited Blacks access to true equality. In 1868, Garnett became president of Avery College, a university for Black students, in Pittsburgh. He eventually returned to New York City to continue his activism and his work in the church. After his wife’s death in 1878, Garnet married educator and suffragist Sarah J. Smith. Despite his failing health, Garnett took a position of U.S. Minister to Liberia. He died in 1882, only two months after his arrival in the African nation.
As the Ku Klux Klan began its rise to become the most prominent terrorist groups in the U.S., Douglass remained a pivotal figure in the battle for racial equality and access to education and job options, but his reputation took a hit due to his personal life. In 1884, two years after Anna’s death, Douglass married white abolitionist, Helen Pitts. The interracial marriage and age difference (Pitts was 20 years younger than Douglass) stirred up public controversy. Even Douglass’ five children were upset by the union, but he rebutted the criticism, stating that his marriages represented his interracial background (his father was believed to be a white slave master, while his mother was a slave)
In 1877, Douglass made peace with his former slave owner on his death bed, a meeting that brought more criticism his way. Douglas also moved to Washington D.C., and purchased what would be a final family home. He published the final edition of his autobiography, and was later appointed to recorder of deeds for D.C.
With his wife in tow, Douglass went back to touring overseas. He returned to England and Ireland, as well as France, Italy, Greece and Egypt, and continued lecturing in the U.S. Douglass also became the first Black man to receive a vote for President at the Republican National Convention in 1888.
Throughout the last decade of his life, Douglass spoke out against racial oppression, segregation, and the rise of lynchings. In 1892, he built the Douglass Place, a collection of row houses in Maryland which still stand today. In 1895, Douglass was honored by the National Council of Women, a white feminist organization (Mary McCloud Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935). Shortly after his return from the event, Douglass suffered a fatal heart attack at his home in Washington D.C.