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’s 1849 autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, inspired the character of Uncle Tom in Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Josiah 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.
Frederick Douglass (1817/18-1895) was the internationally famous Black social activist of the 19th century. Self-emancipating as a young man, he 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.
Harriet Jacobs (1813/15-1897) was born enslaved in North Carolina and self-emancipated in 1842. She had hid alone in a crawl space for 7 years to save her children from her enslaver. Jacobs proposed to tell her experiences to Harriet Beecher Stowe so Stowe could transform it into a book to further the anti-slavery cause. Instead Stowe asked to use portions of Jacobs’ narrative in her Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853). Jacobs’ landmark Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861) was edited by abolitionist Lydia Maria Child and self-published. The narrative is a harsh expose of sexual abuse inflicted on enslaved women. Jacobs used her celebrity to raise funds for formerly enslaved people.
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 lived off the book sales and recognition. She gave 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 worked tirelessly supporting Black Union troops during the Civil War and with the Freedmen’s Bureau helping formerly enslaved people to rebuild.
John Andrew Jackson (1825-c. 1895) was an abolitionist who self-emancipated in 1846. He fled 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. Along the way he knocked on Stowe’s door in Brunswick, Maine and stayed the night. Stowe later wrote Jackson a letter of introduction 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.