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Biography of Henry Highland Garnet

On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, in the County of Kent, on December 23, 1815, Henry Highland Garnet was born. He was born in slavery, as was his father before him. His father was a slave on the plantation belonging to Colonel William Spencer. But, the father of George Garnet, grandfather of Henry, was a native African, Mandingo chieftain, who also was one of the victims of the African Slave trade. He was brought to America and sold into slavery.

When Henry Garnet was about nine years of age, his father, with his mother, made their escape from slavery. George Garnet got permission of his master to attend the funeral of a friend, a slave, who had died; but, instead of attending the funeral he procured a covered wagon, and in it placed young Garnet, his sister and their mother, and, under cover of night, drove to Wilmington, Delaware. There the family was taken in charge by Thomas Garret, the veteran abolitionist. From there they were sent on to New York. In New York apartments were secured on Leonard Street, next door to Boston Crummell, father of the late Rev. Dr. Crummell. Henry Garnet and Alexander Crummell grew up together as boys, were schoolmates and fast friends through life until separated by death. They attended together the old African Free School in Mulberry Street. A number of the colored boys attending this school in after life became celebrated characters. Among the number were: Patrick and Charles L. Reason, Ira Aldridge, George T. Downing, Isaiah G. Degrasse, Dr. McCune Smith and Samuel Ringgold Ward. Later, about 1831, through the efforts of the late Rev. Peter Williams, Boston Crummell, and others, a colored high school was inaugurated; and these boys also attended this institution. When about 15 years of age, Henry Garnet, through an accident, contracted a white swelling, which rendered him a cripple for life. In view of this calamity, the future scholarship which he achieved, and the marked distinction which he won, are perfectly marvelous. Very early in life he became a pupil of the Sunday school of the First Presbyterian Church, under the pastoral charge of the Rev. Theodore S. Wright. In 1835, Garnet, with Crummell and other boys, attended a boarding school in Canaan, New Hampshire. There they remained for a while until finally "race prejudice'' broke up the school. Yet, a cripple, weak, sickly and feeble, undaunted, Garnet persevered in obtaining: his education. From here he went to the Oneida Institute, Whitesboro, N. Y. He graduated from this institution in 1839. He then settled at Troy, N. Y., and taught the colored school there; at the same time he studied the-ology under Rev. Dr. Beman, and acted as secretary of the Colored Presbyterian Church. In 1842 he was licensed and ordained to the Presbyterian ministry. He remained there for a period of ten years. During this time he published a newspaper called the "Clarion." Very soon, he had enlisted in the great abolition movement, and, in which cause he became one of its most celebrated speakers. The late Rev. Dr. Crummell, in his eulogium of Dr. Garnet, relates an incident which will give some idea of the "maiden speech" of Dr. Garnet, in connection with the Anti-Slavery campaign.

Says Dr. Cnimmell: "I was the guest last November of a distinguished and learned clergyman of my own church in New Jersey." He told me the following facts: "I was born," he said, "in the South, the son of a slave-owner. Passing through New York, in May 1841, I read a notice that a black man would speak at the anniversary of the American Anti-Slavery Society. The idea of a Negro making a speech was the most ludicrous thing imaginable, but for the sport of the thing, I said, I will go and hear this fellow. I had never seen a Negro who could read. I had not the most distant idea that a black man could be taught to think, to be intelligent, to be cultivated. I thought I should have fine fun in hearing something burlesque and clownish." "I went," he said, "to the Broadway Tabernacle, took my seat and waited for the speaker. Two or three white men spoke, and then the chairman introduced a tall, slender, black young man, leaning on a crutch whom he announced by the name of Garnet. Dr. Crummell, as soon as he opened his mouth and began his speech I was filled with amazement. Never in my life, before or since, have I heard such pure and beautiful English, such finely turned sentences, such clear and polished rhetoric, such lucid, crystal thought. His gesticulation, too, was as refined and elegant as his speech was chaste and manly." "Never from that day," he said, "have I ever had any doubts of the full capacity of the Negro."

After the close of the Civil War, Dr. Garnet settled down to the pastorate. He was, for a while, in "Washington, also pastor of Shiloh Presbyterian Church, New York. He was appointed United States Minister to Liberia, West Africa, and died in that country shortly after his arrival there. Following his death, the following minute was adopted by the Presbytery of New York, of which he was an honored and distinguished member:

"At the stated meeting of the Presbytery of New York, April 10, 1882, the following resolution was adopted: 'That the Presbytery has heard with profound regret of the death of the Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, D. D., a member of this body, the late pastor of the Shiloh Presbyterian Church of this city and Minister of the United States to the Republic of Liberia. His long service in the church, his ability and fidelity as a preacher and pastor, the dignity, purity, and usefulness of his life, and the courage with which he maintained the honor of his high calling in the church and the community, commanded our esteem and respect, and render his departure a real loss to this Presbytery. That his death as he was just entering upon his duties as Minister of Liberia, where he had a wide field for the exercise of his talents, and where he promised to be greatly useful, is to be deplored as a calamity to that republic and to the colored race.''

Copy of this minute be sent to the family of Dr. Garnet and be published

There is hardly anything more beautiful, and really touching, than the magnificent eulogium of Dr. Garnet, by the late Rev. Dr. Crummell, before the Bethel Literary, of Washington, D. C, on the 4th day of May, 1882, and from which we have already quoted. In closing this sketch, we shall again borrow the words of his life-long friend. Says Dr. Crummell:

"I have spoken of the genius, the eloquence, and the labors of Henry Highland Garnet. Spare me a few moments longer, for a few words concerning the man himself, for a man, i. e., the personal quality of any human being, is always of more value than any of his parts.

"There are two words, which I think more than any other, will serve to delineate his character Largeness and Sweetness. I can well believe the tradition in his family that his ancestors were kings in Africa. Things, ideas of magnitude, grand prospects, seemed ever, even in boyhood to occupy his mind. There was nothing of stint or contractedness about him. He was generous, beneficent, unselfish, and hospitable.

"Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere. ''Every stranger, minister, foreigner, fugitive, refugee, was welcome to his board, and could command his purse. The great fault of his character was in this direction. Not merely unselfish, he lacked somewhat in the quality of self-love. There was a prince lines in his largeness which not seldom landed him into poverty. For, like Daniel Webster, and I am speaking of no faultless man, he never seemed to think there were limitations to the boundless of his beneficence and the capacity of his pocket. If in the future as in the past, men continue to prize noble gifts used for the highest purposes; to honor our devoted service freely given for the maintenance of truth and justice; to applaud lofty speech used for the upbuilding of humanity and the advancement of the race; to revere pure and lofty character, a life-time illustration of the finest qualities of our kind, " 'Then o'er his mound a sanctity shall brood. Till the stars sicken at the day of doom.' "

 Maryland Biographies | Maryland AHGP

Source: Gazetteer of Maryland, by Henry Gannett, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1904.


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