Monday, July 8, 2013

Henry Highland Garnet: 19th century Black Power advocate

            The words “Black Power” often suggest names from the mid 1960’s or early 1970’s, such as Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Bobby Seale or Eldridge Cleaver. However, Black Power in the U.S. has roots in early 19th century New York State history. Over a hundred and twenty years before Malcolm X urged blacks to use “any means necessary” to procure their rights, Henry Highland Garnet of Troy challenged black slaves “to use every means” to fight for their freedom.
Henry Highland Garnet

            On August 16, 1843 in Buffalo, Garnet delivered a militant speech to the National Convention of Negro Citizens that one historian said was “the most forthright call for a slave uprising ever heard in antebellum America.” An escaped slave who was now pastor of the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church in Troy, Garnet exhorted his “brethren” slaves in absentia to demand freedom from their owners and refuse to work for them without being paid. If the owners should react by using violence, Garnet said, “You had far better all die—die immediately, than live [as] slaves, and entail your wretchedness upon your posterity.”
            After reminding his listeners of the bravery of slaves who had organized slave revolts, such as Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner and Joseph Cinque, Garnet incited slaves to “…arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties. Now is the day and the hour.”
            Referring to slave owners as “these devils,” Garnet questioned the manhood of slaves who were hesitant to take action. He said, “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, are you men?”
            Garnet concluded his speech by imploring slaves to “Awake, awake, millions of voices are calling you! Your dead fathers speak to you from their graves . . . arise from the dust. Let your motto be Resistance! Resistance! RESISTANCE!”
            When Garnet sat down, the convention delegates argued about whether or not to print and distribute Garnet’s remarks. A young Frederick Douglass opposed the adoption of Garnet’s speech because he said it was too militant and because it called for a slave rebellion. Others opposed adoption of Garnet’s speech because of the threat they felt it posed to the safety of free blacks living in border states. When the vote was taken, 18 voted in favor of printing and distributing the speech, and 19 voted against doing so.
            Five years later in 1848, Garnet’s speech was published in a volume some historians contend was financed by the martyr, John Brown.
15th St. Presbyterian Church
Washington, D.C.

            In 1850, Garnet traveled to England where, for the next three years, he gave speeches about the anti-slavery movement. After his return to the U.S., he became pastor of the Shiloh Presbyterian Church in New York City and the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. In 1865, he became the first African-American to speak in the House of Representatives since the late 1820’s when blacks had been banned from the chamber. Garnet had been invited to give a sermon to a crowd of worshippers who had gathered to commemorate the House’s approval of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery.
            In 1881, President James Garfield appointed Garnet Minister Resident and Consul General to Liberia. The nineteenth century advocate for Black Power died in Monrovia, Liberia at the age of 66, on February 13, 1882 following a severe asthma attack. 

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