Ever Wonder Who “Uncle Tom” Really Was?

Laurie Woodall, a dear family friend of my husband’s family and now mine, spent some time in northern Virginia. While visiting her childhood home, she showed me a rocking chair belonging to some of her ancestors that actually came over on the Mayflower with them. This rocker rocked more than 13 babies during this time and has been kept in the family for generations. Now Laurie has it to pass down. It must be wonderful to have such a family heirloom survive and still be functional. Laurie also shared that Harriet Beecher Stowe was a blood relative.  Harriet Beecher Stowe is credited by some to have planted the seeds for the Civil War that eventually ended American slavery.  I was excited to tell Laurie that the famous, symbolic cabin was purchased by Montgomery County, Maryland and is located on Old Georgetown Road in Rockville. This of course brought back memories of research that I did back in the early 1990s.

The term Uncle Tom has always bothered me. One day I just decided to look into the history of the Uncle Tom.  That man Tom, based on Josiah Henson was a noble man. Tom was loyal, seen as many of the day (and on to the present time) as stupid and docile.  But Josiah Henson himself was quite intelligent.  Josiah Henson realized that his new master (Isaac Riley) was evil and made a plan to escape. He got his wife and four children out of Montgomery County, MD and made his way to Canada where he was able to realize the American Slave’s Dream — freedom and prosperity. The real Uncle Tom, Josiah Henson went on to help over 100 other slaves escape to freedom on Canadian soil via the Underground Railroad. Now why don’t folks know that tidbit? All one would have to do is read his narrative, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, (free online)  and other historical texts about his life.

Tom’s character was a strong, robust man who would rather die a painful death than reveal the whereabouts of two female slaves who were sexually terrorized by Simon Legree.  Most accounts assume that Harriet Beecher Stowe indeed based her ‘Tom” character on dear old Josiah Henson.  But she could not have known the backlash that would ensue.  Mrs. Stowe could not have imagined that whites would detract all the goodness of this man’s character and life and depict him as some docile, physically weak and aged, massa-loving ignoramus — oblivious to the systematic abuses of the “Peculiar Institution” being encroached upon him. “Tom Shows” popped up all over the place and created the minstrel characters that we associate with “Uncle Tom” today. It is an erroneous assumption, but this negative description is how we continue to keep this character alive and well.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” spurred a bevy of books with similar themes as well as those that opposed Harriet Beecher Stowe’s view of slavery. There was even a a book that attempted to do for the Native Americans what UTC did for slavery. “Ramona” was written by Helen Hunt Jacskon in 1884.

This photo of what was thought to be  Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  It is located at 11420 Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda, MD.

Ironically, I have passed the symbolic cabin site several times located at 11420 Old Georgetown Rd, Rockville, MD 20852 (which is actually North Bethesda).  The cabin was purchased by Montgomery County in 2006 for $1,000.000 from a private family whose heirs no longer wanted it. Weeds and failure to upkeep the property took its toll and after renovations re-opened to the public on June 29. 2006. The plan was to be fully opened by 2012.  There there has been a revelation that this cabin was built long after Josiah Henson escaped from this property and can not therefore be the actual cabin.  It is still the symbolic cabin and Josiah Henson did live on the property, but the slave quarters that housed him have long disappeared.  Even in the worn shape it was in, this symbolic cabin was probably better than the actual one.  It is highly doubtful that the man who owned Josiah was concerned about adequate slave quarters.  I would love to take a walking tour of the site.

About Josiah Henson, I wonder if he knew his legacy would mean so much to so many these hundred plus years later? Could he have known that his life/character would still cause division within the black community for generations? Did he know that his great grand nephew Matthew Henson* would be the first to discover the geographical north pole? Did he know that other descendants Stanley V. Henson would become a film maker (In the Midnight Hours [2010] Sow Your Dreams [2009] Rise Above the Silver and Gold, or that Kianta Henson would become a Hollywood producer  or that Taraji P. Henson would become  an award winning actress? He could not have, but he knew that there had to be a better life for him and his children as free people and that his children could have better futures.

All of this because my dear friend told me that she is a blood relative of Harriet Beecher Stowe? See what you sparked Laurie? Rejoice in the rich history you have and its additional connection to one of America’s greatest historical events, one of it’s most celebrated books, and a few of its talented and celebrated folks in the entertainment industry. Though the term “Uncle Tom” is derogatory, the original character on which the term is based was noble, upstanding and wonderful.


* Matthew Henson and Robert Peary (white man credited with discovering the North Pole although it was actually Henson) both fathered children outside of marriage with Inuit Eskimo women. Some of Henson’s descendants can be seen here.


Other links about the present day cabin







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