“Sarah Smith Tompkins Garnet was the first African American female principal in the New York public schools. The eldest of eleven children, she was born Minsarah Smith in Brooklyn on July 31, 1831 to Sylvanus and Annie (Springstead) Smith. Her parents, both of mixed African-American and Native American stock, were landholders and successful farmers. Since there were no schools available for African-American children in the immediate vicinity, Sarah received her early education from her paternal grandmother, Sylvia Hobbs, who maintained a school in the attic of her home on Hempstead Plains. At the age of fourteen Sarah began teaching in an African free school, a caste school established by the Manumission Society in Williamsburgh (later part of Brooklyn), N.Y. At the same time she studied at various normal schools in and around New York City. Her first teaching assignment in the public school system was the principalship of a grammar school in New York City which was subsequently designated as P.S. (Public School) 80. She served continuously as principal of this school from the date of her appointment, April 30, 1863, to the date of her retirement, Sept. 10, 1900. The last years of her life she devoted to the seamstress shop which she had begun in 1883, along with her teaching, on Hancock Street in Brooklyn.
Mrs. Garnet had the distinction of being the first African-American woman to attain the rank of principal in the New York City public school system, and she was considered a most efficient administrator. The public presentations and closing exercises of her school–among them the “Literary Salads” made up of quotations from standard authors–always drew large crowds. Some measure of the quality of her work may be found in her students, who included Harry H. Williamson, podiatrist and author; Walter F. Craig, violinist; and Florence T. Ray, Fannie Murray, and S. Elizabeth Frazier, who became successful teachers and leaders in the public schools. On a lesser scale, she touched the lives of many through the night school program which she initiated, emphasizing, in addition to literary education, sewing, homemaking, and vocational training. Mrs. Garnet was both resourceful and persistent. Though frail of body, she had an “unconscious grace and dignity,” a serenity and tact, that won the regard of both her pupils and her supervisors.
Combined with a successful career in teaching and administration were marriage and family life. At an early age she was wed to the Rev. James Thompson, an Episcopal Minister who became the rector of the St. Matthew Free Church of Brooklyn. Mrs. Thompson became an active member of his church and remained an Episcopalian throughout her life. Thompson died in the late 1860’s, leaving her with two children, both of whom died young. About 1879, she became the second wife of the Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, a noted educator, Presbyterian clergyman, and abolitionist. His death in 1882 left her again a widow.
Inspired, perhaps, by Garnet’s active role in public affairs, and aided by her prominence as the widow of so renowned a leader, Mrs. Garnet in her later years took part in several organizations devoted to the uplift of the African-American people. She was the founder and leading spirit of the Equal Suffrage Club, a small organization of black women in Brooklyn which met in her shop or in her home to advance the cause of political rights for women; although of limited influence, the group remained in existence from the late 1880’s until her death. She early joined the National Association of Colored Women, serving in modest capacities for several years. She was active in efforts to remove discrimination against African-American teachers in New York and on one occasion, it is said, joined Bishop W. B. Derrick in testifying before the state legislature at Albany. In 1911 she went to London, England, as a delegate to the first Universal Races Congress. On her return, although then eighty years of age, she actively distributed to her club suffrage literature she had acquired in England. She died that fall at her Brooklyn home of arteriosclerosis and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. A younger sister of Mrs. Garnet, Susan Maria (Smith) McKinney Steward (1845-1918), graduated from the New York Medical School for Women and Children and pursued a successful career as a physician in Brooklyn and later at Wilberforce University in Ohio.”