'UNCLE TOM'S CABIN'

'Where We Were and Where We Have to Go'

Silver Spring residents Paul Grayson, 87, and his wife, Lucia McAnallen, 75, listen to tour guide Warren Fleming in the newly opened cabin.
Silver Spring residents Paul Grayson, 87, and his wife, Lucia McAnallen, 75, listen to tour guide Warren Fleming in the newly opened cabin. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

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By Jennifer Lenhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006

At 11:30 a.m. yesterday, the 18th-century door finally creaked open at the place known as Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the first tour group stepped off the hot Bethesda sidewalk and into the one room where Josiah Henson lived as a slave.

Inside, tour guide Warren Fleming talked about how Henson's pre-Civil War book was the basis for Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Then Fleming told his own story, about how his great-great-grandfather had been enslaved on a Montgomery County plantation, and how proud he was to guide the first tours inside Henson's place.

"Uncle Tom is America. This cabin tells us where we were and where we have to go," said Fleming, 53, a resident of Damascus and a commissioner on Montgomery County's historic preservation committee. "This is something for our kids. When they're brought up today, they don't know this kind of history, they don't know what it was to be a slave in Maryland."

Tours began a half-hour earlier than scheduled to accommodate everyone in a line that snaked along Old Georgetown Road near Tilden Lane. Visitors -- there were more than 1,000 -- were a mix of races and ages: more old than young, more white than black. Three tours went on simultaneously for 4 1/2 hours as guides worked to get everyone inside. The cabin where Henson lived from 1795 to 1830 is on this weekend's Montgomery County Heritage Days tour.

"I've known about it for years. I've peeked at it through the bushes," said Molly Cline, 75, of Potomac.

Lucia McAnallen, 75, of Silver Spring said that "La Cabana del Tio Tom" was required reading in her Bogota, Colombia, school. "I thought . . . I must come see it," McAnallen said, "since I'm still alive and with energy."

The cabin and the attached three-bedroom house always had been privately owned. The one-acre property was put on the market last year, and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission bought it for $1 million. The property will be restored and might be used as a museum or an African American history research center, said Gwen Wright, Montgomery's historic preservation supervisor.

All afternoon, the shady back yard was the setting for impromptu history reviews.

"It kind of gives you an idea that you don't get out of textbooks," said David Johnson, 13, who was on an outing with his parents, two siblings and grandparents visiting from Mobile, Ala. "This actually gives you an idea of what it was really like."

That insight pleased the teenager's father, David Johnson, 35, of Springfield. "It's important for kids to understand that things for African Americans haven't always been easy, that there's always been a struggle," he said.

Judy Miller, 49, of Burtonsville snapped digital photos to show students in her history classes at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring. "Kids, especially, they need the visual," Miller said. "They don't understand the concept of slavery. They can read about it, but most kids can't believe it ever happened. It's like, 'How could people be so cruel?' "

The 15-minute tours began inside the 13-by-17-foot cabin with hardwood floors and curtained windows. In Henson's era, the floors were dirt, the ceiling was lower and the cabin had a sleeping loft. Over the mantle of a stone fireplace is a drawing of Henson and a poster with an excerpt from "The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave," published in 1848.

Henson was born a slave on a plantation in Charles County in 1789 and sold at an auction in Rockville. He went to Isaac Riley's 3,700-acre plantation in Bethesda, now the area surrounding the cabin.

Riley was a drinker who ran his business into debt and relied on Henson to manage farm operations. In 1825, Riley asked Henson to take 20 slaves to Kentucky, so creditors could not get to them, and Henson obliged. On the way, Henson's group passed through the free state of Ohio, where people told them they could stay and be free, Henson's book says. But Henson had given Riley his word that he would return. He did. In 1830, Henson escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

"Imagine him standing here once he got back from Kentucky," Fleming told visitors. "Imagine this man after all the trials and tribulations he'd gone through. He still had dreams. A lot of African Americans such as me took the term Uncle Tom as a negative, you know being sold out. . . . But really it's not. It's a term of survival."


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