Happy Josiah Henson’s Birthday!
How appropriate that the Parks Department would hold a community meeting to begin the public participation portion of the planning for a park to celebrate the internationally-famous author, abolitionist, minister and former slave, whose 1859 autobiography was the basis for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” In 2006, Montgomery County purchased the land at the corner of Old Georgetown Road and Tilden Lane to form the Josiah Henson Special Park. The County plans to convert the main house, dating from 1800-1815 and the attached log cabin, into a public museum to celebrate the challenging and inspiring life of Josiah Henson, to educate about slavery in Montgomery County, and to promote interest in Montgomery County history.
When you walk in Montgomery County, you step in the footprints of slaves who built this area. The echoes of their footsteps are faint now, and fading fast through the years. But some of them were giants, and their strides changed this country and the world. Now the County is striving to preserve what it can of their lives, and doing so by celebrating one of the most influential authors to live in Montgomery County, a former slave who taught himself to read and write, and in doing so, led Harriet Beecher Stowe to fictionalize his work and change history. As the Park and Planning website notes:
The impact of Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, cannot be underestimated. Published in 1852, it broke all sales records of the time and sold over half a million copies by 1857. It inspired and enflamed the abolitionist movement in the mid-19th century and many believe it helped to propel the American Civil War.
Because of the historical associations of the Josiah Henson Site there is perhaps no property in Montgomery County that conjures up images of slavery and the slave experience as much as this resource. The goal for the interpretation of the Josiah Henson Site is to accurately portray Henson’s life and the Maryland slave experience as well as to explore the impact of Stowe’s novel
The museum will be part of Montgomery County’s effort to tell the story of the African-American experience within the county parks, centered on Henson’s incredible life story. Henson, through his travels and his fame from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” may have been one of the most widely-known residents of Montgomery County at the time. As shown in the play and movie “The King and I,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was known even in isolated Siam. The museum will join the other County efforts to educate about slavery and life in early Montgomery County, including the Underground Railroad Trail Experience, which also includes information about Quaker heritage in Montgomery County.
The park planning process is just beginning, and the Planning Board has already scheduled a public hearing on the park plan for September 23, with a follow-on “facility planning” meeting for November 2010. Tonight’s meeting was to start getting public input on the park and how it would interact with the White Flint Sector Plan, the surrounding communities, and transportation and parking needs.
The site is one of 110 historical buildings preserved by Montgomery County, and Cheryl Spicer, one of the chief planners, pointed out that it is in the “top 20” for the County because of its historic character. The Isaac Riley plantation stretched across the area which is now the Luxmanor community (the current park site is the little patch of green on the right side, just off Old Georgetown Rd.):
But now for the bad news: the little log cabin we were all told was the real “Uncle Tom’s Cabin?”
According to analysis of the tree rings in the wood, it was built in 1850-51, twenty years after Josiah Henson escaped to Canada. It’s not likely that Henson actually lived in the cabin.
Nevertheless, he did live on the plantation, and was the “superintendent” from 1795 to 1830. He was there when the attached house was built over fifteen years. It was his detailed and gripping description of slavery in Montgomery County which captured the attention of Americans and listeners throughout the world. The County wants to use the entire park to celebrate his remarkable life. Henson himself was well-traveled, and the Parks Department has prepared a map showing where he lived:
The plans now call for the museum to be open some time in 2012. Until then, the County plans to have the facility open only twice a year (and by special arrangements), including during the June Montgomery County Heritage Day. This year, the cabin will be open on Sunday, June 27. Parking will be at Wall Park on the other side of Old Georgetown Rd.