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Restoring the Good Name of Uncle Tom : Historian Working to Clear Reputation of Former 19th-Century Slave

February 16, 1989|MICHAEL FLETCHER | The Baltimore Evening Sun

On Old Georgetown Road in Rockville, Md., stands the former home of Josiah Henson, one of the most misunderstood figures of 19th-Century African-American history.

Henson, born in Charles County, Md., in 1789, spent many years as a slave. And his much chronicled life inspired the term Uncle Tom, which is more a reflection of how Henson's legacy has been distorted than it is of his life's work.

But as Walter Fisher, a former professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, wrote in the introduction of Henson's autobiography, the term Uncle Tom would not anger those who know something about Henson's life.

"It is appropriate to revisit Uncle Tom, to see him as he was," Fisher wrote. "To do this is to find a man many, many times nobler than the mean connotations that his name bears in the American language today."

Acted as Overseer

Henson spent much of his early life living on the Riley Plantation in Montgomery County, Md. There, he grew to be a trusted confidant of his owners and was allowed to act as an overseer and travel extensively. His role at the plantation provided the fodder for the lead character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's 19th-Century classic, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," a book credited by historians with being a insightful condemnation of slavery.

In 1830, at age 41, Henson escaped from slavery with his family. He made his way to Canada, where he founded a school for blacks, and worked against slavery as an abolitionist fund-raiser and conductor on the Underground Railroad.

He was an author of three books, including "Uncle Tom's Story of His Life."

But Henson's fame came as Uncle Tom--a now demeaning term used to deride African-Americans who have little racial pride.

At the Riley plantation, Henson was so well-liked that he often accompanied his owners to the local tavern. He bartered in his master's behalf. He was trusted to watch over the other 18 or so plantation slaves.

Countering 'Evil'

But far from being a cruel overseer, Henson "saw his position as a mitigator to the overwhelming evil which surrounded the slave's existence," according to an essay on Henson put together by the Afro-American Institute.

But after years of faithful service to Riley, Henson learned of plans to sell him to another owner. This prompted him to flee slavery.

He ended up in Canada, where he learned to read and write and began his tireless efforts to spread the word about the horrors of slavery. In 1834, he helped establish a town on the east banks of Lake St. Clair that was called Dawn. The town later housed a sawmill started by Henson, as well as the British American Manual Training Institute, established in 1842.

To raise money for his endeavors, Henson returned to the free states as a lecturer and was successful in raising money from several abolitionists. He returned to the United States on several occasions to help other blacks escape to freedom.

His efforts earned him worldwide recognition, and he became the guest of a President as well as British royalty, including the archbishop of Canterbury and Queen Victoria.

What remains of the Henson cabin is believed to be what was once the kitchen for the plantation's main house. It is occupied by a couple who keep the house closed to the public. Several groups, however, are pushing for the house to be studied for designation as a national historic landmark.

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