By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" summons visions of racial brutality in another place and time. But Uncle Tom's Cabin stands today in Rockville, shaded by a row of trees from the speedway that is Old Georgetown Road.
And the property is for sale.
Its owner, Hildegarde Mallet-Prevost, died in September at 100, and her family is selling the three-bedroom colonial (literally) with the attached log cabin that was once home to Josiah Henson -- the slave whose 1849 autobiography was the model for Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
A century and a half later, an Uncle Tom has come to mean a black man who obsequiously seeks white approval or betrays his race. But the cabin in North Bethesda, just south of the city of Rockville, is also a symbol of the strength and savvy that enabled Henson to rise from slavery to build a pioneering life of learning and achievement.
The cabin, where Henson lived during the time in which Stowe's novel takes place, served for many years as the home office for Marcel Mallet-Prevost, Hildegarde's husband and a lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board who died in 2000. Their son Greg showed me around, pointing out the oak beams below, still covered in bark; the broad floorboards, probably original to the plantation house; the bedroom where he slept when he was home from college.
"My parents were history people," Greg said. "They accommodated anyone who wanted to take pictures of the outside, and people came by constantly, but my parents wanted to be left alone on the inside."
As a result, few historians have been inside the cabin. Those I spoke with could hardly contain their excitement. "This house basically fell between the cracks," said Judy Christensen, a historian who is preservation planner for the city of Rockville. "It's a site of national importance."
Heritage Montgomery, the county's historical tourism agency, and county planners are trying to raise money to make a bid on the house, which is on Montgomery's list of historic sites. The cabin has not made it to the National Register of Historic Places because, as Greg put it, "my father felt it was his right to decide if it was historic."
Josiah Henson was born in Charles County in 1789. One of his first memories, he wrote in his autobiography, was the sight of his father "with his head bloodied and his back lacerated." The father had received a hundred lashes and had his right ear cut off for beating the white overseer who had brutally assaulted Josiah's mother. When the master of that Southern Maryland plantation sold off Josiah's family, scattering his parents and siblings to the highest bidders, Josiah and his mother ended up in Montgomery on a 3,700-acre plantation owned by Isaac Riley.
There, Henson rose to become superintendent of the farm operation, in charge of production and sales at markets in Washington and Georgetown (then separate cities). As Henson wrote in "The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave," Riley was "quite incompetent to attend to the business himself. For many years I was his factotum, and supplied him with all his means for all his purposes, whether they were good or bad."
Riley's lousy business sense eventually landed him in big trouble. In 1825, the farmer arranged to send his slaves out of state so his creditors couldn't take them. Henson was put in charge of taking 18 slaves, his wife and two children to Riley's brother's farm in Kentucky. Henson wrote of leading his group through Ohio, a free state, where "we were frequently told that we were free, if we chose to be so. At Cincinnati, especially, the colored people gathered round us, and urged us with much importunity to remain with them; told us it was folly to go on."
By simply staying in Ohio, Henson could have lived relatively free, with no harm to anyone "except one whom we had none of us any reason to love, who had been guilty of cruelty and oppression to us all for many years."
Surely, Henson was tempted. "From my earliest recollection, freedom had been the object of my ambition," he wrote. "No other means of obtaining it, however, had occurred to me, but purchasing myself of my master. The idea of running away was not one that I had ever indulged. I had a sentiment of honor on the subject."
Henson decided it would be wrong to run: "I had promised that man to take his property to Kentucky, and deposit it with his brother; and this, and this only, I resolved to do."
Henson's choice, as portrayed in Stowe's novel and the minstrel shows that kept Uncle Tom famous into the 20th century, morphed into a popular view of Uncle Tom as a traitor to his race. But many readers come away from both Henson and Stowe's books seeing the slave as a hero. "He is morally and intellectually superior to his white masters," said Christensen. "They're lazy where he is hardworking. He's true to his word where they are not. He rescues his master from debt and illness. At a time when people thought whites were superior in every way, here's a black man who proves himself capable and honest at every turn."
In Kentucky, Henson worked the farm, earned money as a preacher and saved toward traveling back to Rockville to buy his freedom. It is in the recounting of that return to Maryland that Henson describes the cabin that sits on Old Georgetown just south of Tilden Lane: "At night I was sent to such quarters as I had been accustomed to long enough, the cabin used for a kitchen, with its earth floor, its filth, and its numerous occupants."
Today, with a fire crackling in that old kitchen, the cabin is toasty warm, a small, charming room in a house lovingly preserved by a family that cherishes history.
"My parents would have liked one of us three kids to keep the house, but it doesn't work with the way we conduct our lives," said Greg Mallet-Prevost. So his family hopes to sell to an institution that will open the place to the public. "The archeologists come through here and just go nuts," he said. "They see the dirt floor in the cellar, and it's like they're ready with their shovels."
Canada maintains Henson's house in Ontario as the home of Uncle Tom's Cabin, but Maryland historians say that title belongs here because this was Henson's home during the period Stowe describes. "This is where he lived as a slave," said Gwen Wright, acting chief of the county planning division. "This is really it."
The property, on an acre of land, is listed for $990,000, a relative bargain considering the McMansions now popping up in adjacent Luxmanor. The neighborhood was built in the 1940s on 500 acres of the Riley plantation by Morton Luchs, whose real estate company became Shannon and Luchs.
Henson's return to Rockville ended badly. Riley stole his hard-won savings and reneged on his deal for Henson's liberty. In 1830, Henson and his family made for the border. For six weeks, they traveled by night through Ohio and New York, aided by sympathetic farmers and watermen along the Underground Railroad. They made it to Canada, where Henson found work and a cabin on a farm. The farmer sent Josiah's son Tom to school, and the boy taught his father to read.
"The natural tendency of slavery is to convert the master into a tyrant, and the slave into the cringing, treacherous, false, and thieving victim of tyranny," Henson wrote in 1849.
But in Canada, Henson found a way out of those enervating tentacles. He wrote his book, lectured on abolition and, with other escaped slaves, started his own farm. Together, the former slaves created a settlement, with a school, in a town they named Dawn.