Born into slavery in Maryland in 1815, Garnet and his family escaped to New York City when he was nine years old. In New York City, Garnet attended the African Free School. In the 1830s, Garnet continued his education at several institutions. He eventually ended up at the Oneida Institute in Whitesboro, New York, finishing his studies in 1840. He became a Presbyterian minister and served as the first pastor of the Liberty Street Negro Presbyterian Church in Troy, New York, beginning in 1842.
His “Call to Rebellion” speech in 1843 encouraged slaves to rebel against their owners. In 1850, Garnet traveled to England and Scotland, where he spoke widely against slavery. He also supported allowing blacks to emigrate to other lands, such as Liberia in Africa, a country comprised chiefly of freed slaves. In 1852, Garnet traveled to Jamaica to serve as a missionary. Ill health forced his return to the U.S. in 1855, where he continued his work in the abolitionist movement. In 1856, he served as pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC.
On February 12, 1865, while in Washington, Garnet made history when he was chosen by President Abraham Lincoln to speak to the House of Representatives—making him the first African American to preach a sermon in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In 1868, Garnet was appointed president of Avery College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Later he returned to New York City as a pastor at the Shiloh Presbyterian Church (formerly the First Colored Presbyterian Church and now St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem).
Fulfilling a longtime dream, Garnet traveled to Africa in 1881, appointed as the U.S. Minister to Liberia. He died in 1882, a few months after his arrival. Garnet was given a state funeral by the Liberian government and was buried at Palm Grove Cemetery in Monrovia.
“The humblest peasant is as free in the sight of God as the proudest monarch that ever swayed a sceptre. Liberty is a spirit sent from God and like its great Author is no respecter of persons.” – Henry Highland Garnet