RedState Celebrates Black History Month: Josiah Henson and the Forgotten Legacy of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'

Josiah Henson. Credit: unattributed, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Left’s ignorance is often shown in the type of slurs they choose to employ. When they run out of talking points (if they have any), that is usually what conservatives are subjected to, and Black conservatives are too often a target. Take the pejorative, “Uncle Tom,” which the Left has twisted and used against Blacks who do not vote Democrat or toe the line of whatever is the current left-wing orthodoxy. Last year, after the Bruen and Dobbs Supreme Court decisions, they even modified it to “Uncle Clarence” to malign Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, showing they are devoid of creativity, among other things.


Anyone who knows the history of the character Uncle Tom from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin knows that the way the Left uses it is flat-out wrong. Uncle Tom was anything but a sellout or a house Negro. He was a Christian, who showed bravery and compassion, and refused to bow to a wicked master because he served the Lord Christ. Beecher Stowe based this character on a real-life slave and abolitionist. His name was Josiah Henson. While his story is rich and incredibly inspirational, Henson is rarely mentioned during Black History Month.

We need to change this, as well as reverse the bastardization of the term “Uncle Tom.” Here’s my contribution.

The Guardian wrote in 2020:

From its very first moments, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s debut novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a smashing success. It sold out its 5,000-copy print run in four days in 1852, with one newspaper declaring that “everybody has read it, is reading, or is about to read it”. Soon, 17 printing presses were running around the clock to keep up with demand. By the end of its first year in print, the book had sold more than 300,000 copies in the US alone, and another million in Great Britain. It went on to become the bestselling novel of the 19th century.

Before reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I only knew that Stowe’s novel had been credited with influencing the debate at the heart of the American civil war. I had an expensive education, but sadly I learned very little about black history at school; by my early 20s, only names such as Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman still rang a bell. All that changed when I discovered that Stowe’s novel was based on the life of a real man, named Josiah Henson, whose cabin in Ontario was just a few hours from my home.


Josiah Henson’s Ontario land was once a 500-person freeman settlement called Dawn, and was known as one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad. It is now a museum and cultural center.

Born into slavery in 1789 in Charles County, Maryland, Henson watched his father be whipped to the bone and his ear lopped off for standing up to a white man who tried to rape his wife. His father was ultimately sold off and Henson never saw him again.

When Henson’s master died, he was sold apart from his family in the plantation’s estate sale. Henson remained on his new owner’s plantation in Montgomery County, Maryland until he was an adult. Henson became an overseer of sorts, looking out for the welfare of other slaves on the plantation. He was also his master’s “market man.”

Henson not only survived but rose to the position of farm overseer and Riley’s market man in the nation’s capital. There he rubbed shoulders with lawyers, businessmen and Methodist ministers, one of whom taught him how to preach and helped him fundraise to buy his freedom.

After receiving a $350 down payment on his emancipation – about three years’ wages for a white farm labourer – Riley swindled Henson by sending him to Kentucky to visit his brother Amos, who attempted to sell him south to New Orleans. Henson narrowly avoided that harsh fate through a highly providential twist of events: Riley’s nephew Amos Junior, the young man tasked with selling Henson, contracted malaria. Rather than letting the teenager die, Henson honourably loaded him on a steamship, then returned north.


Henson became educated and, like Frederick Douglass, he used this opportunity to seize freedom for himself and his family. After 42 years of slavery, Henson traversed the Niagara River and followed the Underground Railroad all the way to the Province of Upper Canada (Ontario).

In 1830, Henson escaped Kentucky by water on a moonless night. Travelling by night and sleeping by day, Henson, his wife and four children made the 600-mile journey to the Canadian border on foot, assisted in part by Quakers and Native Americans, but mostly by their own pluck. Upon reaching the Niagara River, a kindly Scottish captain paid to send the Henson family across. According to one edition of Henson’s autobiography, the captain asked if Henson would be a good man in his new land.

“Yes,” Henson replied. “I’ll use my freedom well.”

And that he did. For four years, Henson worked on other farms and properties to earn money to care for his family. In 1834, he purchased 200 acres of land in Kent County, and created a settlement and laborer’s school for other fugitives who had escaped slavery. Henson later became a Methodist preacher and a conductor on the Underground Railroad between Tennessee and Ontario, helping 118 more slaves, including his own brother, find freedom.


Henson lived to be 93 years old. Even though he was the inspiration and centerpiece for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he has been relegated to obscurity. Over the last several years, The Henson estate and others have championed the cause of reinserting Josiah Henson back into the annals of Black History and American History.

Jared A. Brock penned a biography The Road to Dawn, which documents Henson’s journey from slavery to freedom, as well as the story behind how his life captivated Harriet Beecher Stowe and sparked the writing of her seminal work.

Two documentaries were also produced and both are worth your time in getting to know this American hero.


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