“SHARP flashes of lightning come from black clouds, sprightly words of wit come from those who live in dark hovels, and bright gleams of intelligence come from children brought up in the most abject ignorance of books.” –Josiah Henson
Josiah Henson Is Not Uncle Tom
I “met” Josiah Henson for the first time in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Hartford home. His photograph was propped next to her writing papers. Our tour guide pointed to him and said: “Stowe used Josiah Henson’s experience to create the character of Uncle Tom.” There is a lot to unpack from that statement. For this reflection though I want to focus on the person Josiah Henson who is so much more than the very complicated legacy of inspiring the character of Uncle Tom.
I saw Henson’s dignified, noble image many times—often with a hand-written name “Uncle Tom” penned below. I saw his narrative published as “The Story of the Real Uncle Tom” and “The True Narrative of Uncle Tom.” Who was he?
I read The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself (published in early 1849), which is riveting. I then read Sharp Flashes of Lightning Come from Black Clouds: The Life of Josiah Henson by Jamie Ferguson Kuhns (The Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, 2018). Then I traveled to Bethesda, MD, to visit the Josiah Henson Museum and Park.
In the poetic and moving introductory video viewed in the beautiful, new visitor center, I saw in Henson’s own hand this statement: “My name is Josiah Henson. My name is not Tom. My name has never been Tom.”
I walked to the small plantation house that once was occupied by the man who enslaved Henson and cheated him out of the money Henson had paid for his own freedom. Instead of re-creating the furnishings of a slave plantation or telling the story of the slave owner, the Montgomery Parks Service interprets Josiah Henson’s life. There I truly was introduced to Josiah Henson.
Henson’s story is one underscored by mother-love and by intelligence and strength, faithfulness, and ingenuity. When Henson struck out for liberty, he took his wife and children—two cradled in a homemade pack Henson carried on his back. Not only did he and his family settle safely in Dresden, Ontario, Henson returned to the U.S. to help more than 100 enslaved people also run to freedom. He was instrumental in establishing the Dawn Settlement, which housed freedom seekers in self-governed safety, offering schooling, trades, and prosperity. Henson published his narrative to raise money to purchase his older brother’s freedom. This summary does not come close to sharing the power of reading Henson’s own words as he narrates his story—the deliberations he went through, the realizations and the anxieties, the indignation of being wronged, the galvanizing of determination and the steadfastness to doing what is right. Henson was as admirable as a human being could possibly be. He is unforgettable.
When Stowe was accused of making up the stories within Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she wrote The A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which specified the many people who inspired the tale. She said: “A last instance parallel with that of Uncle Tom is to be found in the published memoirs of the venerable Josiah Henson . . . now pastor of the missionary settlement at Dawn, in Canada.”
Henson responded to this connection saying: “From that time to the present, I have been called ‘Uncle Tom,’ and I feel proud of the title. If my humble words in any way inspired that gifted lady to write… I have not lived in vain; for I believe that her book was the beginning of the glorious end.” A different statement than his assertion of self later in life; the one I saw in that introductory video at his museum.
Stowe and Henson had strategic reason to write their stories—and they had strategic reason to ally with each other. They wanted to end slavery. Henson’s freedom narrative—which had sold well on its own—sold exponentially with the new title connecting it directly with Uncle Tom. Connecting Uncle Tom to Josiah Henson validated Stowe’s story. There is great power in tying together Henson’s truth and Stowe’s sentimental fiction—together they were even more powerfully able to change minds about the inhumanity of keeping fellow humans enslaved.
Attention to Henson’s own story is essential: His story, his words. In his own story we can witness the remarkable, strategic, faith-filled, intelligent, and justice-seeking thought process of a man who saw clearly the need to act: not with violence, because his faith prevented that, but to act to secure his right to make his own life. Henson’s story is unforgettable.
My next stop is to the Josiah Henson Museum of African Canadian History in Dresden, Ontario. Until last year this place that represents autonomy, strength, and action was called the Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site. I don’t need to say that the new name is so much better.
Hear our own Beth Burgess, Director of Collections and Research, discuss Josiah Henson and his connections to Harriet Beecher Stowe in this video from Maryland Public Television.
Karen Fisk is Executive Director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center