Black and white photo of Henry Highland Garnet

Albumen Silver Print taken of Henry Highland Garnet by James Stead in 1881. Image in public domain, provided by the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.

Garnet was a well-documented African American leader of the nineteenth century. He was born into slavery in Maryland but escaped with his family to the North at an early age. There he attended several different schools such as, the African Free School, the Oneida Institute in New York, and Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire. Garnet was exposed to extreme instances of violence and racism in the North; his parents were kidnapped back into slavery and the Noyes Academy was attacked by a segregationist mob. These experiences fueled his later writings about and attitudes towards slavery, abolition, race relations, and emigration. Other exhibits on the Colored Conventions Project website explore Garnet’s antebellum writings and views on emigration in greater detail.

In the 1840s, Garnet gave speeches that identified colonization and emigration as “impossible” for African Americans. He attested that, unlike the Israelites, “Pharaohs on both sides of the blood-red waters” surrounded Blacks. Despite these early statements, his work as a missionary in Jamaica, his experiences visiting England, his involvement with the Free Produce Movement, and the writings of Thomas J. Bowen, a Baptist missionary who worked in Africa, combined to convince Garnet that a mission in Africa lead by Black emigrants could eventually provide an economic threat to slavery. 

This belief prompted him to found the African Civilization Society in 1858, a group dedicated to evangelizing and promoting the growth of cotton in the Yoruba nation. Members of the Society hoped that this cotton would undercut southern production and thus weaken the system of slavery in the US. Garnet also promoted a polarizing vision of Black nationality as rooted in Africa, which some other Black leaders feared was too similar to the frequently maligned goals of the American Colonization Society.

Despite Garnet’s founding and continued promotion of the African Civilization Society, he had a complicated relationship with emigration. In an 1859 speech, he stated, “The American Colonization Society says [America] is not the home of the colored man… I say it is the home of the colored man and it is my home.” Though he saw emigration as a viable option, he also remained committed to promoting a vision of freedom for African Americans in the United States.

Though Garnet made a trip to England in 1861 to raise funds for the African Civilization Society, the group began moving in new directions in the 1860s. The beginning of hostilities of the Civil War and a war in the Niger Valley complicated the Society’s mission. By the end of the Civil War, the African Civilization Society began functioning instead as a freedmen’s aid group.

Garnet remained an important figure in American society in the postbellum era, becoming the first Black minister to preach before the House of Representatives in 1865. He also attended two southern Colored Conventions in Virginia in 1865. Later he attended a final Colored Convention in 1869 in Washington, D.C.

Though he did not work as an active promoter of emigration following the cessation of his involvement with the African Civilization Society in 1864, he continued to foster a personal desire to move to Africa. 

In 1881, Garnet achieved his goal and was appointed by James A. Garfield as Minister Resident and Consul General to Liberia. A later biographical sketch of Garnet stated that at the time of his nomination, Garnet “was now sixty-six years old and his personal friends advised against the acceptance of the new position, which required residence in a treacherous and unhealthy climate, but worn out by long, unrequited service in behalf of his people, broken in health, with his domestic circle no longer the ideal home of his prime, Garnet gladly accepted the honor.”

The sketch continued: “The author recalls this language from Garnet’s lips expressed during a dinner tendered him during his last visit to the Capital: ‘Oh, Alexander,’ addressing his host [and lifelong friend], Dr. Crummell, ‘if I can just reach the land of my forefathers and with my feet press her soil, I shall be content to die.’ This was a prophecy shortly fulfilled. Dr. Garnet reached Monrovia late in the year 1881, and before two months had passed away, his proud spirit was released.”

Garnet left behind a proud legacy of advocacy and a complicated relationship with emigration. 


Brawley, Benjamin. Negro Builders and Heroes. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1937. Accessed via African American Biographical Database. 

Brown, William Wells. The Black Man; His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements. Second edition, revised and enlarged. New York, Boston: Thomas Hamilton, R.F. Wallcut, 1863. Accessed via African American Biographical Database.

Cromwell, John W. The Negro in American History; Men and Women Eminent in the Evolution of the American of Afrrican Descent. Washington, DC: The American Negro Academy, 1914. Accessed via African American Biographical Database. 

MacMaster, Richard K. “Henry Highland Garnet and the African Civilization Society,” Journal of Presbyterian History (1962 – 1985) Vol. 48, No. 2 (Summer 1970): 95 – 112.