Sunday, February 27, 2011

Josiah Henson: "I graduated from the University of Adversity."

The words above are said to have been Henson's response when the Archbishop of Cantebury, impressed with his bearing and speech, asked him what university he attended. (Sadly, people still feel that an "articulate" black person is a thing of wonder today.)

I wrote about the Josiah Henson Special Park for because there were giving free tours every Saturday during Black History Month. After writing about the tours, I decided to actually take the tour myself.

The park is site of where Josiah Henson spent most of his life while he was a slave in Maryland. The house has been altered but bones of the original structure are still there.

While the house isn't a shack, it also isn't a grand manor.One thing I was struck by was the tour guide's observation that 'if this was the main house,
can you imagine what how the slaves lived. Seeing the house reminded me that those notions of anti-bellum grandeur fostered by movies like Gone with the Wind are not necessarily accurate.

Henson, who is an ancestor of Matthew Henson and Tariji P. Henson, was the man whose autobiography (The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself) Harriet Beecher Stowe used as inspiration when she wrote Uncle
Tom's Cabin.
Although some historic sites that pertain to Henson's life were once referred to as "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the Special Park in Montgomery County, outside of DC was renamed.

Henson's autobiography got little attention until after Stowe wrote her book and he objected to being characterized as Uncle Tom while he was alive. While Henson did not like being considered to be one and the same as Stowe's famous character "Uncle Tom," he did not blame Stowe; instead he used the association to his advantage. He met Stowe and she wrote an introduction to an updated edition of his book. Since the term "Uncle Tom" has become more of an insult since he died, he surely would not want to be thought of that way.

He has a remarkable story--a child of slaves who saw his parents treated very cruelly and was for a time sold away from his mother; an excellent business manager who became so trusted by his master, he managed the farm and the slaves; an honest man who did not allow himself or his charges to escape when they had the chance (and later regretted it); a preacher who was enterprising enough to earn money to buy his freedom; a hardworking slave who turned rebel when he realized he had been cheated and was to be sold after years of loyalty; a brave man who escaped to Canada with his family, founded a community for free blacks and later risked his life to help bring others to freedom as a conductor on the Underground Railroad; a compassionate man who used what he knew to help the widow of the master who cheated him to get a pension.