Today, the Reverend Dr. Henry Highland Garnet is the most famous African American you never learned about during Black History Month. In the 19th century however, Garnet, who lived from 1815 to 1882, was recognized as one of the foremost anti-slavery organizers in the world. He was the founding president of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, an organization that waged international campaigns against human trafficking and Cuban patriot José Martí called him America’s “Moses.”
And, though he is often left out of the popular story of abolition, Rev. Garnet’s work of building bridges of solidarity offers a unique perspective on what it means for the U.S. to value human rights in an international context in the 21st century.
Born a slave in Maryland, Garnet was carried by his parents to freedom in the North at the age of 9. As a teenager, Garnet attended Noyes Academy in New Hampshire, an integrated institution of higher learning founded by anti-slavery advocates. Suffering from an ailment that would eventually cost him his leg, the enterprising student discovered one day that area white farmers were plotting to destroy the school. Garnet’s biographer noted that he “spent most of the day in casting bullets in anticipation of the attack, and when the whites finally came he replied to their fire with a double-barreled shot-gun, blazing from his window, and soon drove the cowards away.” Though the mob eventually destroyed the school, Garnet’s covering fire allowed his fellow students to escape under the cover of darkness.
Rev. Garnet’s speeches on slavery and liberation captivated audiences. At the National Negro Convention held in Buffalo in 1843, the 27-year-old minister came forward with an audacious plan to end slavery, urging an armed uprising of the slaves. “If you would be free in this generation, here is your only hope,” he said. “However much you and all of us may desire it, there is not much hope of redemption without the shedding of blood. If you must bleed, let it all come at once—rather die freemen, than live to be slaves.”
Garnet came to this radical conclusion because he believed that it was the only way to stop the United States from spreading slavery via warfare across the continent: “The Pharaohs are on both sides of the blood red waters!” Rev. Garnet lectured. “You cannot move en masse, to the dominions of the British Queen—nor can you pass through Florida and overrun Texas, and at last find peace in Mexico. The propagators of American slavery are spending their blood and treasure, that they may plant the black flag in the heart of Mexico and riot in the halls of the Montezumas.”
Garnet interpreted the contested U.S. invasion of Mexico that launched the Mexican-American War in 1846 as a diabolical plan to re-plant slavery’s banner in a republic that had effectively abolished chattel bondage. In contrast to those politicians who preached the hatred of Mexicans, Garnet reminded Americans that fugitive slaves regularly found sanctuary in Mexico. Garnet lauded the Mexican people as “liberty-loving brethren,” and “ultra-abolitionists.” Garnet’s understanding of the role that Mexican and Latin American abolitionists played in the global struggle against slavery informed his later human-rights crusades.