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Josiah Henson, who was a slave in Maryland, inspired the famous novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’

BETHESDA, MD FEBRUARY 04:The home in the Josiah Henson Special Park on February 04, 2012 in Bethesda, Md. (Photo by Mark Gail/The Washington Post) (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST)

You may know the stories of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, two abolitionists who played key roles in helping to end slavery in this country. They were called abolitionists, because they fought to abolish — or end — slavery.

But do you know the story of Josiah Henson, who lived on a Montgomery County plantation when he was about your age?

Josiah and his family were owned by a farm owner in Southern Maryland, and even as a very young boy, Josiah carried buckets of water to men working in the fields. A very sad day in Josiah’s young life was when his father was sold to a plantation in the South. Josiah’s father had defended his mother, making their owner angry. Slaves were considered property, so farm owners or masters could do whatever they wanted with their slaves. Josiah never saw his dad again.

A Maryland slave boy

Josiah’s family was separated even more when he and his five brothers and sisters were sold to different owners. But in 1795, when Josiah was 6, he was reunited with his mother at a plantation called the Riley Farm; it was owned by Isaac Riley, who kept slaves. Josiah didn’t get to go to school like you. When he was about 13, he got into trouble for just having a book! Slaves were not allowed to read and write.

Despite Josiah Henson’s tough upbringing, he grew up to be a good man and a leader among the other slaves. In 1828, he wanted to buy his freedom from Riley with money he had earned preaching in church, but Riley wouldn’t let him go.

In 1830, Henson, who was then married and the father of four children, decided to flee to Canada, where slavery was not allowed. The family walked all the way to Canada from Maryland, traveling by night and hiding during the day. They relied on friends and strangers who were part of the Underground Railroad. It wasn’t a real railroad but a series of people who provided safe places for slaves to stay as they moved to freedom. After about six weeks, the Henson family arrived in Canada. They were finally free.

Inspiring a novel

Henson didn’t forget all the slaves he left behind, and he started working with the Underground Railroad himself. He helped 118 slaves get to freedom. He also became a popular Methodist preacher and traveled around giving encouraging speeches. He was known as a great orator, or speaker, but he didn’t know how to read until his son, who was able to attend school, taught him. Henson wrote his autobiography, or his life story. Author Harriet Beecher Stowe read it and used his life, in part, as the basis for her 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Many people say that the book helped make many Americans aware of how slaves were being treated.

Henson died in 1883 and is buried in Canada. He was the first black man to be put on a Canadian stamp.

Today, what’s left of the Riley Farm doesn’t look like much: The small white house with green shutters, where Henson’s owners lived, sits back from the road at the end of a driveway, and the slave quarters are no longer standing. But the area has been named the Josiah Henson Special Park, and the idea that it is remembered by the name of the slave and not the slave owner is one of the important lessons of Black History Month. Henson overcame much hardship and remained a good man, a leader and an inspiration for many.

—  Moira E. McLaughlin



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