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Late homage for US slave from 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'

2 min 19Approximate reading time

His life may have inspired the landmark novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" but 150 years after the abolition of slavery in the US, Josiah Henson remains a controversial figure, and efforts to turn his onetime home outside Washington into a museum are slow at best.

In Rockville, now a swank suburb of the US capital, all that remains of the tobacco and wheat plantation where Henson once worked is a wooden house painted white with a small, single-room attachment.

The cabin is not specifically where Henson lived -- its construction came long after he left -- but it resembles the hut he described in his 1849 autobiography, "The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave."

Archeologists working with authorities in Maryland's Montgomery County -- who bought the plantation house in 2006 and plan to develop the site in the next years to allow regular guest visits -- discovered traces of a kitchen below.

Henson may have slept there for time to time during his 30 years on Isaac Riley's plantation, where he joined his mother at age five in 1795, and experts hope they can use the traces to reconstruct his actual dwelling.

Author Harriet Beecher Stowe used Henson's autobiography as the basis for "Uncle Tom's Cabin," her 1852 novel that was one of the best-selling books of the 19th century which fueled tensions between the industrial northern states and the slave-owning south. 

Tensions erupted in the 1861-1865 Civil War, which ended with the formal abolition of slavery across the country.

Shirl Spicer, museum manager for Montgomery County parks, plans to showcase editions of both Henson's book and "Uncle Tom's Cabin" at the site.

But she says the museum will not be ready for at least five years, due to a lack of funding.


- 'Shame' -


Honoring Henson is still a sensitive topic, especially among African Americans, some of whom think that he "betrayed his race to obey his white master," Spicer explains.

For many, the term "Uncle Tom" is synonymous with terms like "obsequious," "sell-out" and "collaborator."

Spicer said that even Henson's descendants, who came to the park a few years ago, said they had "always been ashamed of him.'"

In 1825, Riley had Henson take some of his slaves to his brother's farm in Kentucky to keep them away from creditors. Henson obeyed, even though he could have escaped during the long journey on foot.

Henson returned with his meager savings and tried -- but failed -- to buy his own freedom from Riley.

"He felt the only honest way to achieve freedom was to buy it," said historian Jamie Kuhns.


- Hero? -


Montgomery County officials hope to rehabilitate Henson.

"We have to introduce the real man to everyone, the hero behind the fictional character," Spicer said. 

In 1830, Henson fled to Canada along with other slaves via a network of clandestine back roads known as the "underground railroad."

Once in Canada, he established a fugitive slave community, and worked as a Methodist minister.

Henson's departure explains why he is being honored so late in his native country. 

"He left the US and escaped and stayed in Canada, where he is a national hero," said Kuhns.

Archaeologist Cassandra Michaud says she has found no trace of shackles, chains or collars in the former plantation -- no doubt because Henson, a rare enslaved African-American who supervised some 20 other slaves -- was "taking care of them in a way."

Kuhns said that the situation has to be viewed in the proper context.

"If you live in a system based on subservience, it's a hard thing to break," she said.

Henson, for example, was allowed to go to services at the local Methodist church, where sermons "which preached obedience" were often delivered by white pastors.

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