February 12, 1865 • Ex-Slave Henry Garnet Addressed U. S. House of Representatives
Presbyterian minister Henry Garnet was the first African American to preach a sermon in the House of Representatives.
On this day, February 12, 1865, the galleries of the United States House of Representatives were packed. Black and white alike vied for a place where they might share in the historic moment. For the first time in the history of the Republic, a black man–and an ex-slave at that–was about to address the House of Representatives.
It was President Lincoln who asked Presbyterian minister Henry Highland Garnet to deliver a sermon in the United State House of Representatives. Other national leaders had added their encouragement. Now Henry stood poised to give one of the two most important speeches of his life. He had delivered the other speech 22 years earlier, in 1843.
Born a slave in Maryland in 1815, he escaped with his father and other family members when he was nine years old. Quakers helped them on their way. Eventually the fugitives settled in New York, where Henry got an education. Unable to find work, he went to sea, despite a leg injured when he was fifteen (eventually it had to be amputated at the hip). On his return from a voyage to Cuba, he found that his home had been raided by slave hunters and his sister seized. His father escaped by leaping from an upstairs window, Furious, the boy bought a bowie knife and stalked the streets, bent on revenge. Friends coaxed him to lie low.
In 1835, Henry had even more reason to be angry. With thirteen other black students he was admitted to Noyes Academy in Canaan New Hampshire. On July 4th, they spoke up for the abolition of slavery. This angered local whites. A few weeks later, the whites dragged the school house into a swamp. Although seriously ill, Henry had to flee. He crossed the mountains into New York where he could take a steamboat; Friends spread their coats on the deck to cushion him. He was bedridden for two months.
Afterward, he was invited to study for the ministry. Even before his ordination he began to pastor a church. (Later, he became a Presbyterian missionary to Jamaica.)
It was at the Negro National Convention in Buffalo, New York in 1843, that Henry made the first speech that brought him to national attention. He called on America’s four million slaves to revolt. “You had far better all die–die immediately, than live slaves…” he cried. “If you must bleed, let it all come at once–rather die freemen, than live to be the slaves.” Slaves were not allowed to keep God’s laws. Therefore they must throw off the wicked system that oppressed them.
Now, in his second important speech, standing in the House of Representatives, Henry compared those who kept slaves to the Pharisees whom Jesus charged with laying heavy burdens on others while refusing to lift a finger themselves. He exclaimed, “Great God! I would as soon attempt to enslave Gabriel or Michael as to enslave a man made in the image of God, and for whom Christ died. Slavery is snatching man from the high place to which he was lifted by the hand of God, and dragging him down to the level of the brute creation, where he is made to be the companion of the horse and the fellow of the ox.”
Henry died in Liberia in 1882, having become an advocate of establishing a state of free blacks there.
1. Garnet, Henry Highland. “An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America.” (www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2937t.html).
2. Garnet, Henry Highland. “Discourse Delivered in the House of Representatives, 1965.” (www.lihistory.com/5/hspeech2.htm).
3. Henry Highland Garnet. (www.africawithin.com/bios/henry_garnet.htm).
4. Various other encyclopedia and internet articles.