By Ennis Barbery Smith, Assistant Administrator, Maryland Heritage Area Program
The Reverend Josiah Henson’s legacy is one of resilience. He and his family escaped slavery in Maryland in 1830, heading north and eventually settling in Ontario, Canada. Once there, he founded a community for escaped slaves called the Dawn Settlement. While I only recently learned about Henson’s accomplishments and his connection to Maryland, it’s clear to me that the story of his life is worth sharing far and wide.
In high school, I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. I remember that my teacher credited this book with helping raise awareness about the brutalities of slavery and laying the groundwork for anti-slavery sentiment, which would propel the United States into the American Civil War. This novel, published in 1852, told the story of an enslaved man referred to as Uncle Tom whose journey begins in Kentucky. Over the course of the plot, he travels down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.
As a high school student, I didn’t think to ask how Harriet Beecher Stowe—a white woman from Connecticut–knew about the brutalities of slavery. It turns out that she based many of the experiences she described in her famous novel on firsthand accounts by former slaves, including the autobiography of Josiah Henson, which was originally published in 1849.
Henson was born in Charles County, near Port Tobacco, and spent much of his childhood and early adulthood enslaved on the plantation of Isaac Riley in Montgomery County. The stories of enslavement that he shares in his dictated autobiography The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself are Maryland stories. His childhood was marked by the horrors that many enslaved people endured: violence, abuse, and family separation. As Henson shares in his narrative, Riley recognized him as very intelligent and delegated many responsibilities to him. Henson also became a reverend in the Methodist Episcopal Church. When he attempted to buy his freedom, Riley cheated him, and he feared being sold away from his family. This is where Henson’s story as a free man begins. He escaped slavery in Maryland, eventually settling in Canada with his family and establishing the Dawn Settlement.
Today, Reverend Josiah Henson’s story of perseverance and courage is finally being etched into the Maryland landscape, and finding its way into the consciousness of Marylanders. The site in North Bethesda that used to be known as the Riley Plantation is now Josiah Henson Park, part of Montgomery Parks. In 2018, the Montgomery County Heritage Area expanded its boundaries, adding this site—and a host of others. As a result, the Montgomery County Parks Foundation applied for and was awarded a Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA) matching grant to design and install new exhibits at Josiah Henson Park’s on-site Visitor Center, currently under construction. The exhibit will feature an introductory film, original illustrations, and artifacts excavated at the Riley Plantation site. Shirl Spicer, Museum Manager for Montgomery Parks, said she is excited for people to see the exhibit because the artifacts paired with dynamic, evocative illustrations will allow visitors to engage with Henson’s story in new ways.
Even before the park re-opens with its new and enhanced visitor center and exhibits, Shirl Spicer assured me that her organization is actively spreading the word about Reverend Josiah Henson in Montgomery County through outreach at community events and schools. Plus, a brand new in-depth Josiah Henson biography was written by Montgomery Parks’ senior historian, Jamie Ferguson Kuhns, and published in February 2019.
Knowing what I know now about Henson’s remarkable life and autobiography, it feels like an injustice that I had never heard the name Josiah Henson before the Montgomery County Heritage Area submitted their boundary amendment materials to MHAA last year. However, just over the past year, I’ve started noticing his name in press coverage. In addition to Henson’s own autobiography, interested readers can learn more about Henson’s story here, watch video content about his life here, and watch an interview with his descendant here. All these sources are no substitute for visiting Josiah Henson Park itself. The Park and the new exhibits, funded in part by MHAA, are slated to open to the public in 2020.