Amidst the grand old houses, some vacant and in disrepair, and important civil rights historic sites in Historic Marble Hill in West Baltimore sits the Henry Highland Garnet Neighborhood Park. It is a leafy green space, with flowers, trees, giant urns, winding paths, and park benches. Plaques to a variety of local leaders are spread throughout. The park, in the Baltimore National Heritage Area, is named for militant abolitionist and minister, Henry Highland Garnet.
Garnet was born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1815. He and his family escaped via the Underground Railroad to New York City when he was 9 years old. Although they escaped to a northern state, slave catchers threatened his family. Garnet spent time working on ships and attended several schools established by abolitionists. He became a Presbyterian minister. In 1840 he helped found the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. He was known for his captivating and radical speeches encouraging armed uprisings among the enslaved. During the Civil War he helped recruit Black soldiers for the Union Army, and narrowly escaped a white mob during the 1863 New York Draft Riots. On February 12, 1865 he was the first African American to address the United States House of Representatives, encouraging them to adopt the 13th Amendment with a sermon entitled “Let The Monster Perish.” After the end of the war, he continued to work against slavery in Cuba and Brazil. Although he had first been critical of Liberia, a colony in Africa for Black Americans, toward the end of his life he supported Black emigration. In December 1881 President James Garfield appointed him Ambassador to Liberia, and he died there a few months later on February 13, 1882.
The large historical marker at one of the entrances to the park quotes Garnet’s “An Address to the Slaves of the United States,” also known as the “Call to Rebellion,” which he gave to the National Negro Convention in 1843. It reads:
Brethren, arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties. Now is the day and the hour. Let every slave throughout the land do this, and the days of slavery are numbered. You cannot be more oppressed than you have been—you cannot suffer greater cruelties than you have already. Rather die free men than live to be slaves. Remember that you are four million!
In the audience was fellow former Marylander, Frederick Douglass. The address was considered too radical to distribute,but other abolitionists, including John Brown, funded its publication.
In 1969, the Henry Highland Garnet Council, which was made up of 36 block organizations, established the park on the site of a former school. Robert Harding, a MICA professor, designed the park and Lena Boone, president of the Council, coordinated the work. The Neighborhood Improvement Program (a federally funded program of the Department of Labor) provided the labor for the creation of the park. The Baltimore City Department of Public Works furnished the walkways and plumbing for the fountain and the Department of Recreation and Parks provided $15,000 for materials. The construction company, Potts and Callahan (still operating today) donated fill dirt for the landscaping.
Over the decades the park fell into disrepair. In 2016 the park was renovated by the Marble Hill Community Association. Since 2018 it has been maintained by Friends of Henry Highland Garnet Park. In 2021 volunteers planted a rose walk and installed a bronze plaque (sponsored by the Baltimore National Heritage Area and Union Baptist Church) to honor Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Clarence M. Mitchell Jr.,. The Mitchells were important civil rights activists who lived and worked in the neighborhood, and who had entertained Jackie Robinson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Lady Bird Johnson in their rose garden. A community composting program currently provides fertilizer for the gardens, continuing the tradition of neighborhood care for, and pride in, the park.
The research and writing of this article was funded by two grants: one from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority and one from the Baltimore National Heritage Area.