On a busy street in a well-to-do Washington suburb is an unlikely piece of African-American history.
The Colonial house with an attached log cabin on one and a half acres near a major intersection is, at first glance, a typical suburban plot.
But it’s one that has a connection to one of the most successful and controversial books of the 19th century, the fictional “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Indeed, it was an international hit, the best-selling book of the 19th century, after the Bible, according to several academic sources.
The Maryland site was once the home of Josiah Henson, a slave on what was then a 3,700-acre plantation who fled to Canada in 1830. His 1849 autobiography, “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself,” was the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s iconic character, Uncle Tom.
Stowe’s book, published in 1852, was a phenomenon that ignited the abolitionist movement, contributing, historians say, to the American Civil War and anti-slavery movements around the world. Once revered, the book was later reviled in much of the 20th century for depicting blacks as submissive. But it, and, by extension, Henson, are now enjoying something of a resurgence.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., a scholar in African-American studies at Harvard University who’s well-known to the American public for his PBS programs, co-authored “The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in 2006.
“It was time to reconsider this book,” said co-author Hollis Robbins, director of the Center for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Montgomery County, the Maryland county in suburban Washington where the house sits, bought the private residence in 2006 for $1 million. Officials thought that the log cabin was there at the time Henson lived and worked on the grounds, from 1795, when he was 6 years old, to 1825, when his owner sent him to Kentucky.
But history was not so tidy. A scientific analysis of the wood in the cabin – really a “log kitchen” with a giant fireplace – dated to 1850; still old, but not the linear connection to the man behind “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that some had hoped for.
“We were surprised,” said Shirl Spicer, museum manager for Montgomery County Department of Parks, as she led a tour of the house, cabin and grounds. “We weren’t disappointed. We were excited to have this public-owned property related to Josiah Henson.”
While the kitchen postdates Henson’s time, Spicer said there had been a log kitchen there before that had burned down.
The frame of the main house dates to 1800-1815, during Henson’s time there, and there’s documentation that the house and land belonged to Isaac Riley, Henson’s owner. An archaeological dig at the site has unearthed 19th-century artifacts, as well, including a flatiron and milk bottle.
The focus for county officials is now on Henson, with the historical site called Josiah Henson Park instead of Riley House/Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
“His footprints are all across this property,” said Spicer.
The farmhouse is being developed as a museum, and the site as a park that will have a visitors’ center. The projected cost is $5 million to $6 million, and it should be finished in the next three or four years. There are plans to return the log kitchen to its 1850s condition.
“There is perhaps no property in Montgomery County that conjures up images of slavery and the slave experience as much as this resource,” says the Montgomery Parks website.
All of which brings renewed attention to Henson and the legacy of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
“Stowe definitely borrowed from Josiah Henson’s life,” said David S. Reynolds, author of “Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America,” published in 2011. “He wasn’t the only one she borrowed from, but his book was certainly the most important one. He always took pride in that he was the basis for Uncle Tom.”
In the face of doubters, Stowe identified Henson in “A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which was published in 1853 to prove that the characters were based on real people.
Reynolds, an English professor at the Graduate Center at City University of New York and winner of Columbia University’s Bancroft Prize for history, credits Stowe for her portrayal of slaves as people and not things.
“She revealed in new ways the humanity of enslaved people,” he said. “At one point the subtitle was ‘The Man Who Was a Thing.’ They weren’t seen as fully human by many people.”
And a lot of that impetus came from Henson – whom Stowe met in 1849 when his book came out – and his story.
Henson, who lived to age 93, was born in southern Maryland, and as a child was sold to Riley in 1795, a move that reunited him with his mother. As a young man, he gained Riley’s trust. He supervised the North Bethesda farm, which grew wheat, corn and tobacco, as well as apples, and he sold the produce at markets.
By 1825, Riley was beset by business problems, and, his property at risk, he put Henson in charge of escorting his slaves to his brother’s Kentucky plantation.
During his travels, Henson became a minister. When the group of slaves went through Ohio, a free state, he refused to cut himself or anyone else loose and continued with Riley’s assignment. It was only when he later tried to buy his freedom, known as manumission, that he discovered that his owner, who’d taken a partial payment, had no intention of freeing him.
Instead, Henson was sent with Riley’s son to be sold in New Orleans, site of the largest slave auctions in the country. Desperate, Henson was ready to kill the owner’s son. But when the son became ill, Henson nursed him and they returned to Kentucky, where Henson realized he’d have to escape to gain freedom. That meant Canada. Fugitive slave laws were in force in the North that put escaped slaves at risk in free states, where they could be captured and returned as property.
Henson and his family made it to Canada, where he established the Dawn Settlement, a refuge for former slaves. Henson’s son taught him to read and write when the former slave was in his 40s, leading to his autobiography and the success and fame that followed, even a meeting with Queen Victoria in 1877.
His fortunes were tied to that of Uncle Tom.
“He always took pride in that he was the basis for Uncle Tom,” said Reynolds.
Henson even changed the title of his autobiography in later editions to “Uncle Tom’s Story of His Life . . . the Rev. Josiah Henson (Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom).’ ”
In Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom endures hardships and ends up being whipped to death for not revealing the location of escaped slaves.
It’s hard to overstate the impact that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” had in its time.
“It was an enormous sensation,” said Mark Canada, dean of arts and sciences at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, who’s taught “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for a decade. “It gave rise to a play that was the most successful play of the 19th century, that ran into the 1920s.”
“It was a runaway best-seller,” said Tess Chakkalakal, director of the Africana Studies Program at Bowdoin College, which owns the home where Stowe wrote the book. Its impact was greater than even its sales, because in the mid-1800s, with few options for entertainment, people would often read out loud, meaning there were about 10 readers for every book sold.
President Abraham Lincoln reportedly said to Stowe when he met her in 1862, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!” (The quote has been widely repeated, although there’s no contemporaneous report of Lincoln saying it.)
“ ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ will always have a place in American literary culture and history because of its impact on individuals,” said Violet J. Harris, an education professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Canada thinks the derisive view of “Uncle Tom” is mistaken. “He has come to mean an epithet and not as the great Christian hero, as Harriet Beecher Stowe intended,” he said.