Henry Highland Garnets Vision of Black Suffrage; History - in His Speech to the House in 1865, Pastor Went Further Than Lincoln Would

Article excerpt

Just after the start of the Oscar-nominated Lincoln, a U.S. Colored Troops soldier named Ira Clark tells the president, In 50 years, maybe a Negro colonel. In 100 years, the vote.

It is a thought-provoking way to begin a film about Lincolns greatest political triumph, the passage of the 13th Amendment that brought chattel slavery in the United States to a legal end. Clarks speech introduces what may be the movies most important character that is not Old Abe; lets call that character Black Suffrage. The characters MIA for most of the film. Then, at the end, Lincoln gives a speech, which would turn out to be his last, in which he mentions that the privilege of the vote might be extended to certain worthy African-American men. He rues that he didnt give a better speech to lend that important proposal of black voting the appropriate grandeur.

But Henry Highland Garnet had done just that not in the movie, from which Garnet is omitted, but in historical fact. Indeed, President Lincoln had invited him to do it. Lincoln had asked this leading African-American activist to speak in the House of Representatives on Sunday, Feb. 12, 1865, to mark the passage of the amendment to end slavery. Garnet thus became the first African- American ever to speak before Congress.

Garnet was the pastor of Washingtons Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church and a revealing choice for this symbolic departure. He was a visionary who made a career of imagining new ways to move the nation beyond ossified politics of slavery. In the 1840s, hed called for slave rebellion. In the 50s, hed explored colonization of blacks to Africa an idea so often charged with racism but, in Garnets hands, part of a plan for race equality and national redemption.

Born into slavery in Maryland, Garnet and his family had escaped to free soil. Garnet could speak with an intimate knowledge of slavery and civil war. He knew the slaveholders lash, he had witnessed the New York draft rioters noose, and he had sat at the bedside of dying black men whod worn the Union blue. Lincoln knew Garnets history and what he represented.

Lincoln may not have been in the House chamber to hear Garnets speech, though doubtless some of the men and women who were there were also in the crowd when Lincoln delivered his second inaugural three weeks later. Garnets theme was the suffering of Americas two wars the war that was American slavery and the war that ended it. …


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