Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Educator and minister, Henry Highland Garnet founded the first black Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh.
Born into slavery on December 23, 1815, Henry Highland Garnet escaped with his family to New Hope, Pennsylvania, and then migrated to New York City. He was educated in religion and theology while attending Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire. He then became a pastor for several Presbyterian churches in cities throughout the Northeast including Troy, New York City, and Washington, DC. Garnet was involved with the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and gave speeches as an advocate for abolition. He traveled to Great Britain and Jamaica to lecture against slavery and set up a college for African Americans in Pittsburgh. Garnet passed away in Liberia on February 13, 1882, just two months after being named minister and Consul General to Liberia.
Henry Highland Garnet was born on December 23, 1815, in New Markey, Maryland. His parents, George and Henrietta, were slaves at the time of his birth. His grandfather had been brought to the United States on a slave ship some years earlier. Garnet’s father, George, was a prayerful man who had a great deal of influence on Garnet’s strong religious convictions later in life. The family fled from slavery in 1824 by means of the Underground Railroad. After settling for a brief time in New Hope in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, George found work as a shoemaker in New York City, where the family finally settled. It was at this time, in 1826, that George changed the family name to “Garnet” as a sign of their new lives after slavery. As a boy, Garnet traveled to Cuba and Washington, DC, working as a deckhand on a schooner, a merchant sailing vessel. When he returned, he went to Long Island to work as a farmhand for two years.
In 1831, Garnet began his studies at the High School for Colored Youth in New York City. Two years later Garnet was baptized by Theodore Sedgwick Wright, pastor of the First Colored Presbyterian Church. While attending Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire, Garnet met Julia Williams. They married in 1841 and had three children, only one of whom survived to adulthood. The couple moved to Troy, New York, where he studied religion and theology with Nathan Beman, a New School clergyman.
In 1841, Garnet was ordained as pastor of Liberty Street Presbyterian Church and became a strong advocate for the abolition of slavery. He joined the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and began making speeches against slavery throughout the Northeast. In 1843, Garnet gave an emotional speech at the Negro National Convention in Buffalo, New York. He urged the slaves to free themselves by any means possible. His speech, Address to the Slaves of the United States of America (1843), moved people to tears. However, Garnet’s radical ideas were opposed by more conservative activists such as Frederick Douglass.
In 1850, Garnet traveled to Great Britain to lecture against slavery. While there, he led a boycott of cotton manufacturing. In 1852, Garnet was sent to Jamaica as a missionary for the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland. After he fell ill in 1855, he was forced to return to New York City, where he became pastor of Shiloh Presbyterian Church. In 1861, Garnet returned to England for a brief time to represent the African Civilization Society, but he returned when the American Civil War broke out. He recruited free blacks to fight for the North, and he collected food, clothing, and other amenities to make their lives as soldiers more bearable.
In 1864, Garnet became pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. He continued to speak out against slavery and was the first black American to preach a sermon to the House of Representatives in the Capitol. In 1868, Garnet moved to Canal Street in Allegheny City, Pittsburgh, where he served as president of Avery College, a school of religious education for African Americans. While in Pittsburgh, Garnet established Grace Memorial Church, the first church for Pittsburgh’s black Presbyterian community. He returned to Shiloh Presbyterian Church in 1870. In 1881, President Garfield appointed Garnet minister (the position is now Ambassador) and Consul General to Liberia, West Africa.
Garnet’s wife, Julia, passed away in 1870. In 1879, he married Sarah Smith Tompkins, who was a prominent New York teacher and school principal. After moving to Liberia in December of 1881, Garnet fell ill. Two months later, he passed away on February 13, 1882, in Monrovia. His daughter, Mrs. M. H. Garnet-Barboza, helped organize a school in her father’s memory in Brewersville, Liberia. The people of Pittsburgh celebrate a “Henry Highland Garnet Day” each February in memory of the work he did in their city.
Address to the Slaves of the United States of America. Negro National Convention: Buffalo, New York, 1843.