On December 23, 1815, African-American abolitionist, minister, educator, and orator Henry Highland Garnet was born into slavery. Garnet escaped his bondage and worked hard to fight for himself and the African-American community, eventually becoming the first African-American to address the United States House of Representatives. He also at one time resided at 185 Bleecker Street.
Garnet was born in Maryland, but in 1824, his family (consisting of 11 members) was given permission to attend a funeral and ended up escaping to Delaware before continuing on to New York City. From 1826 to 1833, Garnet attended the African Free School and then the Phoenix High School of Colored Youth in New York City. It was in school that he began his career in abolitionism. Eventually relocating from New York City to Troy, New York, Garnet began his career as a pastor, leading the congregation of the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church for six years. During this time he published papers that combined religious and abolitionist themes and supported the temperance movement and political antislavery.
Garnet began living at 185 Bleecker Street, at that time part of the neighborhood of Little Africa, on his return to New York City; during this second stint in the city, he joined the American Anti-Slavery Society and frequently spoke at abolitionist conferences. His radical message included encouraging slaves to rise up against their masters. He later moved to Washington D.C., where he became a prominent preacher at the 15th Street Presbyterian Church. It was on February 12, 1865, mere weeks before the end of the Civil War, that Garnet made history by becoming the first African-American to address the U.S. House of Representatives, when he delivered a sermon commemorating the victories of the Union army and the deliverance of the nation from slavery. As a result, he had been invited by President Lincoln with the unanimous consent of his cabinet and the two congressional chaplains for a special Sunday service held on President Lincoln’s birthday.
While a strong supporter of black nationalism in the United States, Garnet also supported the emigration of blacks to Mexico, Liberia, and the West Indies, places where they would have more opportunities. In 1881 he was appointed U.S. Minister to the black African nation of Liberia, founded by freed U.S. slaves, allowing him to achieve his dream of living in Liberia. However, he died a mere two months after his arrival there. His home in the Village has since been demolished and replaced by a new law tenement in the early 20th century.
You can read more about Garnet’s story, as well as other inspiring people and organizations, and their Village connections, on our Civil Rights & Social Justice Map at www.gvshp.org/civilrightsmap as well as our Greenwich Village Historic District map and tours at www.gvshp.org/GVHD50tour.