Racial Policing: Policing the Boundaries of Unfreedom

The convention minutes do not have an extensive description of Henry Highland Garnet’s original “An Address to the Slaves of the United States,” but the speech he gave to defend and justify why “Address” should be adopted and published by the Colored Conventions was received with great applause and tears. The minutes read: 






Referring to the minutes, Garnet defended the merits of “Address” by condemning the system of slavery and connecting it to the experience of free Blacks.  Appealing directly to the Black men who were delegates, Garnet forcefully conveyed the shame, powerlessness, and anger that one would feel when experiencing the inescapable circumstances and effects of systems that necessitated slavery and violence against the Black body:



A slave auction in Virginia.

An integral part of the "abominable system of slavery," slave auctions were notorious for ripping Black families apart, robbing "parents of children, and children of parents, husbands and wives."  

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. "A slave auction in Virginia." New York Public Library Digital Collections

Picking Cotton

Garnet lamented how the bodies of Black men, women, and children were used and taken advantage of. This photograph shows that even a small child is made to work in the fields. 

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. "Picking Cotton" New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Men cannot protect their families, young women are prostituted for breeding, and children are separated from parents. This masculinist excerpt evokes the maddening emotions that stems from the inability to build community, protect family, and comfort loved ones when under a degrading institution.  The successive listing of these human atrocities convey to the audience the necessity for a radical expedient response to a violent, alienating, wretched institution through violent means. “What more could be done?” 






Henry Highland Garnet’s strategic recitation of these well-known men whose lives were consumed by white violence, fuses the lived experiences of enslaved Blacks and nominally free Blacks. Garnet re-conceptualized the ideological, legal, and social connections between enslaved and free Black men. Garnet reminded them that in spite of the difference in legal status, the very lives of free Blacks were inextricably tethered to enslaved Blacks in the minds, laws, and blood lust of white terrorism.

Read about the men whom Garnet references (Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Francis McIntosh, Elijah P. Lovejoy, and Madison Washington) on the next pages.