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Uncle Tom's Cabin

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Find out why calling someone an Uncle Tom is an injustice to Josiah Henson. This history must not be exaggerated or minimized. But the truth about it must be told.


By Cheryl Brown

As our journey along the Underground Railroad with educators, retirees and freedom loving people continued, the next stop was Uncle Tom’s Cabin located in Dresden, Ontario Canada.
Barbara Carter, Josiah Henson’s (Uncle Tom) great great granddaughter, made one of her rare visits to meet tours. Because the Footsteps to Freedom program is so unique and she has been a part of the program since its infancy, she talked to our group about why she campaigns so feverently to rid the negative connotations associated with the name Uncle Tom. In America when someone is called an "Uncle Tom" it is not a term of endearment it usually means he has sold out his own people in one way or another. How did sellout become synonymous with Uncle Tom?
Harriet Beecher Stowe, the lady President Abraham Lincoln blamed for starting the Civil War, wrote the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her book helped introduce the plight of enslaved Blacks to the world. It was so revolutionary, that critics forced her to show proof of the characters in her book. One character was Josiah Henson, her beloved grandfather figure in the story. Stowe came across his story when she read Henson’s own autobiography. Her characters were distorted for 80 years on stage by Whites in blackface. "Not true," says Carter. "Stowe cleared up the controversy when she wrote The Key To Uncle Tom’s Cabin, presenting the original facts and documents upon which the story is founded, together with corroborative statements verifying the truth of the work.”
Her Uncle Tom character is a compilation of three people but Uncle Tom’s story that appears on page 42 speaks directly about Josiah Henson. She tells the following story that she reports is from his own autobiography.
Josiah Henson’s father was beaten and his ear was cut off when he struck an overseer after he brutally assaulted his mother. His father was sold south and they never saw him again. Henson was growing-up without religious instruction and one day at a camp meeting he was electrified. He was immediately converted and began to declare the good news to anyone who would listen.
He succeeded at everything on the plantation. He gained his owner’s respect and the owner put him in charge of the whole estate. The owner did not take care of his financial affairs and it became necessary for him to send all of his slaves to his brother in Kentucky. He entrusted moving the whole operation from Maryland to Kentucky to Henson. As he went through Ohio, Henson was told in Ohio it was against the law to enslave people. He was encouraged to go to Canada and freedom. Henson was a loyal person who gave his word and would not depart from it. His Christian principles would not allow him to violate his pledge of taking the group to Kentucky.
His owner allowed Henson to preach and there was an opportunity for him to make extra money to buy his freedom. His owner agreed on the price of $400 but had second thoughts because he considered him such a valuable piece of property. The brother sent Henson along with his son to New Orleans to sell a flat boat of cattle and produce and without his knowledge to also sell him at market.
Henson writes that he was urged by those he met on the way to kill the young master Amos, but when he took the ax in hand to do the deed he couldn’t because he was a devout Christian. Later on the trip the son became very ill with a terrible fever. Henson stayed with him the entire time nursing him back to health and returning home and laying him in his father’s arms. Instead of the father feeling appreciative "he was rewarded with empty praises, such as would be bestowed upon a very fine dog," wrote Stowe. When Henson found out the owner even reneged on the $400 sale price and told him his freedom cost over $1000 he could not stand it any longer. "Henson indignantly resolved to no longer submit to the injustice," wrote Stowe. He self-emancipated and went to Canada where he amassed 200 acres of land, founded the country’s first vocational education school and taught freedom seekers to be self-sufficient in the new land of freedom. He became an outstanding fundraiser and raised money for his endeavors. He took items made by his students to England. The quality was so outstanding that they came to the attention of Queen Victoria who met with him and helped him in his endeavor to maintain the school. It was very successful.
The site is preserved by the Canadian government. The expanded museum display area and gift shop were favorite places for the group. On display are implements of enslavement, books, and gifts from Queen Victoria. An array of quality items from African nations and others are on sale.
Peg Hill, a conductor on the field study, said this is one of the most developed sites that is on our tour.

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