My Words, My Story: A Black History Month Celebration
“My Story, My Words” is an exhibit at the Stowe Center that celebrates the remarkable people who inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe and her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Josiah Henson

A historical sepia toned image of an older African American man with a white beard and a dressy suit. Nineteenth century.
Josiah Henson (1789-1883)

Josiah Henson (1789-1883) was an author, abolitionist, and minister. Born enslaved in Maryland, he and his family walked over 600 miles to freedom in Ontario, Canada, and founded the Dawn Settlement with other freedom seekers. Henson wrote his 1849 memoir, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, to raise money to help free his brother. His account inspired for Stowe aspects of the character of Uncle Tom in Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Henson returned to the U.S. to lead over 118 people out of enslavement on the Underground Railroad. Using the “Uncle Tom” name, Henson gave speeches to raise funds supporting Black refugees, but later in his life asserted his identity as never being Uncle Tom.

In his memoir, Henson wrote:

“Many years after my family and I arrived in Ontario I made a decision to return south and help slaves escape to freedom.  I freed over 100 slaves using the Underground Railroad. Many of these came to Canada and joined the Dawn Settlement. The immigration from the United States was incessant, and some, I am not unwilling to admit, were brought hither with my knowledge and connivance. I was glad to help such of my old friends as had the spirit to make the attempt to free themselves; and I made more than one trip, about this time, to Maryland and  Kentucky, with the expectation, in which I was not disappointed, that some might  be enabled to follow in my footsteps. I knew the route pretty well, and had much  greater facilities for traveling than when I came out of that Egypt for the  first time.”

Henson was a powerful preacher, but like most enslaved people, he was denied the right to an education. Here is a passage reflecting his feelings when his son asked Henson if he knew how to read:

“‘Why, father,’ said he, ‘can’t you read?’ This was a worse question than the other, and if I had any pride in me at the moment, it took it all out of me pretty quick. It was a direct question, and must have a direct answer; so I told him at once I could not. ‘Why not?’ said he. ‘Because I never had an opportunity to learn, nor anybody to teach me.’ ‘Well, you can learn now, father.’ ‘No, my son, I am too old, and have not time enough. I must work all day, or you would not have enough to eat.’ ‘Then you might do it at night.’ ‘But still there is nobody to teach me. I can’t afford to pay anybody for it, and of course no one can do it for nothing.’ ‘Why, father, I’ll teach you. I can do it, I know. And then you’ll know so much more, that you can talk better, and preach better.’ The little fellow was so earnest, there was no resisting him; but it is hard to describe the conflict feelings within me at such a proposition from such a quarter. I was delighted with the conviction that my children would have advantages I had never enjoyed; but it was no slight mortification to think of being instructed by a child of twelve years old. Yet ambition, and a true desire to learn, for the good it would do my own mind, conquered the shame, and I agreed to try.”

When asked about the truth of the accounts of slavery, Henson said: The truth has never been half-told; the story would be too horrible to hear. I could fill this book with cases that have come under my own experience and observation, by which I could prove that the slaveholder could and did break every one of the ten commandments with impunity.”

You can learn more about Josiah Henson by visiting two sites dedicated to his story:


Frederick Douglass

A historical sepia toned image of an older African American man, angled to the left, with black and white hair, a full mustache, and a dressy suit. Nineteenth century.
Frederick Douglass (1817/18-1895)

Frederick Douglass (1817/18-1895) was internationally famous, the most photographed person in the United States, and an eloquent and persistent social activist and abolitionist  of the 19th century. While enslaved, his enslaver taught him the foundations of literacy, and Douglass continued his own learning by cleverly tricking white children to help him learn more. He escaped slavery as a young man and worked as a newspaper editor, orator, and author, publishing the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) and My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Douglass asking for his help providing a first-hand account of enslaved life on a cotton plantation. Douglass worked for racial equality after emancipation, advocating for the 15th Amendment giving Black men the right to vote, continued access to the ballot, and education desegregation.

Douglass spoke July 5, 1852 on American Independence, saying “What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July. He said: “The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

He concludes his speech with this sentiment: “God speed the day when human blood Shall cease to flow! In every clime be understood, The claims of human brotherhood, And each return for evil, good, Not blow for blow; That day will come all feuds to end. And change into a faithful friend Each foe.” 

You can find out more about Douglass by visiting the sites dedicated to his story:

Harriet Jacobs

A historical sepia toned portrait of a woman sitting in a high backed chair, with a gentle smile on her face and both hands folded in her lap. Nineteenth century.
Gilbert Studios photograph of Harriet Jacobs, 1894. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Harriet Jacobs (1813/15-1897) was born enslaved in North Carolina; she escaped to freedom in 1842. To thwart sexual harassment from the man who owned her, she chose to become the mistress of another white man, and bore two children. To escape slavery, she hid alone in a tiny crawl space under the roof of her grandmother’s house for 7 years in hopes of finding an opportunity to escape with her son and daughter. Jacobs, who escaped with only her daughter, devoted her life to helping formerly enslaved people.

Jacobs contacted Harriet Beecher Stowe to ask her for help her publish her account. Stowe doubted Jacobs’s account, betrayed her trust, and instead asked to use portions of Jacobs’s narrative in her Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853). Jacobs persisted and published her own account  Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself , in 1861.  The narrative is a truthful and harrowing expose of sexual abuse inflicted on enslaved women, told with strategic care and a deliberate aim of gaining the help of white women to end slavery.

Jacobs’s memoir was the first written by a Black woman. Historian Tia Miles credits Jacobs for recognizing and drawing attention the idea of intersectionality.

In her memoir Jacobs wrote: “Women are considered of no value, unless they continually increase their owner’s stock. They are put on a par with animals. This same master shot a woman through the head, who had run away and been brought back to him. No one called him to account for it. If a slave resisted being whipped, the bloodhounds were unpacked, and set upon him, to tear his flesh from his bones. The master who did these things was highly educated, and styled a perfect gentleman. He also boasted the name and standing of a Christian, though Satan never had a truer follower.”

She appealed directly to white women when she wrote:

“I once two beautiful children playing together. One was a fair white child; the other was her slave, and also her sister. When I saw them embracing each other, and heard their joyous laughter, I turned sadly away from the lovely sight. I foresaw the inevitable blight that would follow on the little slave’s heart. I knew how soon her laughter would be changed to sighs. The fair child grew up to be a still fairer woman. From childhood to womanhood her pathway was blooming with flowers, and overarched by a sunny sky. Scarcely one day of her life had been clouded when the sun rose on her happy bridal morning.

How had those years dealt with her slave sister, the little playmate of her childhood? She, also, was very beautiful; but the flowers and sunshine of love were not for her. She drank the cup of sin, and shame, and misery, whereof her persecuted race are compelled to drink.

In view of these things, why are ye silent, ye free men and women of the north? Why do your tongues falter in maintenance of the right? Would that I had more ability! But my heart is so full, and my pen is so weak! There are noble men and women who plead for us, striving to help those who cannot help themselves. God bless them! God give them strength and courage to go on! God bless those, every where, who are laboring to advance the cause of humanity!”

You can learn more about Harriet Jacobs by visiting these sites dedicated to her story:


Sojourner Truth

A historical sepia toned photo portrait of an older African American woman sitting beside a small round table, with a work of knitting in her lap, dressed in period clothing. A quote at the bottom of the photo: "I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance".Nineteenth century.
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) was an abolitionist, civil and women’s rights advocate, and minister. Seeking freedom with her baby daughter in 1827, Truth ran to an abolitionist family in New York who bought her freedom. An itinerant preacher, she met Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison who encouraged her to speak publicly for abolition. Truth dictated her autobiography, Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850) to a friend and supported herself and her family with the book sales. She presented her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech that challenged race and gender inequality in 1851. Truth met Stowe and shared her story, which Stowe published in the Atlantic Monthly as “Sojourner Truth, The Libyan Sibyl.” Truth is also features as a character in Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. Truth worked tirelessly supporting Black Union troops during the Civil War and with the Freedmen’s Bureau helping formerly enslaved people to rebuild.

In her narrative Truth wrote:

“After turning it in her mind for some time, she came to the conclusion, that she had been taking part in a great drama, which was, in itself, but one great system of robbery and wrong. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘the rich rob the poor, and the poor rob one another.’ True, she had not received labor from others, and stinted their pay, as she felt had been practised against her; but she had taken their work from them, which was their only means to get money, and was the same to them in the end. For instance–a gentleman where she lived would give her a dollar to hire a poor man to clear the new-fallen snow from the steps and side-walks. She would arise early, and perform the labor herself, putting the money into her own pocket. A poor man would come along, saying she ought to have let him have the job; he was poor, and needed the pay for his family. She would harden her heart against him, and answer–’I am poor too, and I need it for mine.’ But, in her retrospection, she thought of all the misery she might have been adding to, in her selfish grasping, and it troubled her conscience sorely; and this insensibility to the claims of human brotherhood, and the wants of the destitute and wretched poor, she now saw, as she never had done before, to be unfeeling, selfish and wicked.”

In 1851, at the women’s convention in Akron, OH, Truth famously said:

“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”

To learn more about Sojourner Truth, you can visit:



John Andrew Jackson

A historical narrative illustration in sepia tone of an African American man riding a horse hard, holding onto his hat with his right hand, and looking over his left shoulder. Nineteenth century.
Broadside detail of John Andrew Jackson, c. 1865-1872. Catalog Record #208307. Courtesy the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, MA

John Andrew Jackson (1825-c. 1895) was an abolitionist who escaped from enslavement in South Carolina in 1846. He traveled to Boston and settled in Salem, Massachusetts, where he worked to raise funds to purchase his family’s freedom. Jackson knew he was no longer safe after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and escaped to Canada. As he traveled through Maine, he was directed to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s home. She welcomed and sheltered Jackson for the night, giving him food, clothing nd money to aid in his journey. Both she and Jackson wrote about their encounter later in their own memoirs. A short time after this meeting, Stowe began to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Jackson contacted Stowe to ask for a letter of introduction, which she readily supplied and which he used to book speaking engagements while living in England. His autobiography, The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina, was published in 1862. Jackson and his family returned to U.S. after the Civil War and worked for Black equality in South Carolina, his home state.

Jackson wrote:

“In aiming to arrest the attention of the reader, ere he proceeds to the unvarnished, but ower true tale of John Andrew Jackson, the escaped Carolinian slave, it might be fairly said that “truth was stranger than fiction,” and that the experience of slavery produces a full exhibition of all that is vile and devilish in human nature.

Mrs. Stowe, as a virtuous woman, dared only allude to some of the hellish works of slavery—it was too foul to sully her pen; but the time is come when iniquity should no longer be hid: and that evil which Wilberforce and Clarkson exposed, and of which Wesley said it was “the sum of all human villainies,” must now be laid bare in all its hellish atrocities. The half has not yet been told; but appalling as are the statements made, yet when the fiercest organized effort to extend the monster evil of North-American slavery is being made, every patriot is called on to sympathize over the woes and sufferings of human kind, and plead for freedom and liberty.”

And her wrote: “I may mention, that during my flight from Salem to Canada, I met with a very sincere friend and helper, who gave me a refuge during the night, and set me on my way. Her name was Mrs. Beecher Stowe. She took me in and fed me, and gave me some clothes and five dollars. She also inspected my back, which is covered with scars which I shall carry with me to the grave. She listened with great interest to my story, and sympathized with me when I told her how long I had been parted from my wife Louisa and my daughter Jenny, and perhaps, for ever.”

You can read more about John Andrew Jackson in an upcoming book by Susannah Ashton: A Plausible Man: The True Story of the Escaped Slave that Inspired Uncle Tom’s Cabin (New Press: 2024)




For a deeper exploration into the historical influences of Harriet Beecher Stowe, please visit the Stowe Center.  You can call our Visitor Center (860.522.9258) to schedule your tour of Harriet’s home or dig in to the Research and Collections at research@stowecenter.org.