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Henry Highland Garnet was born into bondage in 1815, in Kent County, Maryland. When he was nine years old, the Garnet family fled their plantation. They made their way to New York City. There, young Henry took advantage of many things that he could not take advantage of in the south, like education.
Garnet attended the African Free School shortly after moving to New York. He focused on studying science and English. He also learned about navigation, which allowed him to work on ships.
Garnet discontinued his education in order to set sail. Upon returning from a voyage in 1829, He was notified that his family was tracked down by slave hunters. Although his parents escaped, his sister was captured. Enraged, Garnet purchased a knife with the intent to kill the slave hunter who had hunted his family. His friends convinced him otherwise.
Garnet continued his education in the 1830s. He studied at several institutions, including the Oneida Institute in Whitesboro, New York. He completed his studies in 1840 and pursued religion.
Garnet ultimately became a Presbyterian minister. In 1842, he began serving as the first pastor of the Liberty Street Negro Presbyterian Church in Troy, New York. With his platform as a minister, he educated people on the oppressive system of slavery and advocated for its abolition.
Garnet began working with other Abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. In 1843, several Black Abolitionists organized a convention of freed Black people in Buffalo, New York. The first National Negro Convention was held from August 15th-August 19th in 1843. It was at that convention that Garnet made a bigger name for himself.
Garnet gave what Black-owned Newspapers called a “soul-stirring” speech, titled “Address to the Slaves of the United States of America.” In his speech, he encouraged slaves to, “Let Your Motto Be Resistance!” With his speech, he laid the foundation for Malcolm X’s and the Black Panther Party’s platforms over a century later.
Garnet’s approach to ending slavery was considered radical and controversial. Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass believed that freed Black people should encourage slave owners to free their slaves instead of causing an insurrection. The convention ultimately refused to endorse Garnet’s speech.
After his failed attempt to convince other Abolitionists that slaves should fight for their freedom, Garnet began speaking around the world. In addition to speaking against slavery, he also spoke of allowing Black people to immigrate away from the U.S. He suggested immigrating to Liberia, a country in Africa that consisted primarily of former slaves.
After evading an angry White mob during the Civil War, Garnet made history as the first Black person to give a sermon before the House of Representatives in 1865 at Abraham Lincoln’s request. In 1881, President Garfield appointed him State Minister and Counsel General in Liberia. Shortly after his arrival in Libera, Henry Highland Garnet died February 13, 1882. He was roughly 82 years old.