On Sunday, Feb. 12, 1865, Henry Highland Garnet, minister of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, entered the halls of Congress. He could not escape notice. He was, his friend Alexander Crummell later wrote in his Eulogium on Garnet’s life, “tall and majestic in stature, over six feet in height, with a large and noble head, its front both broad and expansive, his chest deep and strong, his limbs straight and perfectly moulded.” Garnet was in the House of Representatives that morning at the invitation of William Henry Channing, chaplain of Congress, to deliver a sermon. Channing’s request was hardly a surprise; after all, the Capitol had served as a church for many decades, and preachers had long spoken in its halls. What was astonishing was that Garnet was a black man, no longer relegated to the galleries but standing at the speaker’s dais.
Garnet’s sermon commemorated the House’s passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States, on Jan. 31, 1865. The amendment would become law at the end of the year, on Dec. 18th, 1865, but getting there proved to be a long, drawn-out, arduous process.
In 2012, Steven Spielberg made President Lincoln’s efforts to compel House members to pass the 13th Amendment the focus of his movie “Lincoln.” Historians have been divided over the film’s merits, many complaining about its narrow focus and omissions. Some have pointed to its lack of broader context: the limits of Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation; his late support for the 13th Amendment, which had not originated with him; the military victories that made the end of the war inevitable. Others, specialists in African American history, have lamented the minimization of black figures and black agency: the fleeting attention paid to black soldiers after the beginning of the film; the omission of contraband figures, fugitive slaves who escaped to the Union Army line and slaves’ seizure of property in the South; the trivialization of figures such as Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley, the White House butler William Slade, and Lydia Smith, Thaddeus Stevens’s housekeeper and companion; and, perhaps most egregious of all, the absence of Frederick Douglass.
But even these critics neglected to mention Garnet’s unique role in the early months of 1865. It is Garnet who has left us one of the most vivid accounts of the House proceedings given by a black man. The day, he asserted, “marked the beginning of the end.” Noting that the audience was “quite a salt and pepper mixture,” he then proceeded to list a number of House members who had voted “aye” — among them “Mr. Ashley,” “Mr. McAllister,” “Mr. English and “Mr. Griswold,” before ending with the speaker. After noting the final tally, Garnet concluded with a description of the ensuing pandemonium: the enthusiasms of the ladies, the ecstasies of House members, the somersaults of little boys.
As a consequence, critics have failed to recognize Garnet’s transformation from mere observer to significant actor during these momentous events: his preaching of a celebratory sermon in the House of Representatives.
Who was Henry Highland Garnet, and why did Channing single him out? The choice might seem obvious, given that Garnet was local, serving as minister of one of Washington’s most prominent black churches. Yet in other respects, Garnet was an outsider. Born a slave in rural Maryland, Garnet escaped north as a youngster with his family, eventually settling in New York City. From the beginning, he chafed at the status that white America had forced upon him: fugitive slave, nonnative in his native land. His resistance led him to alternate between two radical ideologies: violent rebellion on American soil on one hand, immigration to Africa on the other. Both positions provoked considerable controversy within both black and white abolitionist communities, often marginalizing Garnet and leaving him bitter.
But there was no denying that Garnet was a brilliant thinker and a brilliant orator. In a speech to the 1843 National Convention of Colored Men, held in Buffalo, Garnet broke rank with many of his colleagues. Addressing his brethren slaves in the South, he called upon them to take up arms. God himself, Garnet proclaimed, required them to act, for “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. … Brethren, arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties. Now is the day and the hour.” Convention members debated the speech hotly before narrowly rejecting it on the ground, Garnet later wrote, that “it was warlike and encouraged insurrection.” Black abolitionists, Frederick Douglass included, were not yet ready for that.
Discouraged by the consolidation of slavery and prejudice in his own country, and frustrated by abolitionists’ lack of progress, Garnet turned his sights abroad to an even more controversial topic: African emigration. In the late 1850s he founded the African Civilization Society. Its immediate goal was the evangelization, civilization and development of agriculture and commerce in the Yoruba Valley (now in Nigeria), while its larger purpose was the creation of a “grand center of Negro nationality” that would unite Africans throughout the diaspora.
Garnet’s plan further enraged black abolitionists, who complained that he was in the pocket of the white-led American Colonization Society, which had long promoted the return of free blacks (not slaves) to countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone. (Nothing came of the project, but Garnet never gave up his dream of emigrating: In late 1881, he moved to Liberia, where he died only a few months after his arrival.)
There was, however, a brief moment in the middle of his life when Garnet found himself ideologically aligned with both black leaders and white abolitionists: the Civil War era, when the nation had finally come around to his way of thinking, accepting that only violence could end slavery and ultimately grant full citizenship to black Americans.
It was violence — war and riot — that allowed Garnet to assume a leadership role during these years. He was living in New York City when Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. Black and white activists, Garnet included, had been skeptical of Lincoln’s intentions, but they now gathered by the thousands at the Cooper Institute. Garnet presided over the meeting and, after reading the proclamation aloud, praised Lincoln, who, he said, “with his eyes set on the God of Justice,” had finally fulfilled his promise of emancipation; at the same time, Garnet called on the president to allow blacks to serve in the Union Army.
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SOURCE The New York Times