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Uncle Tom Was No Tom

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Although Uncle Tom is one of the worst names one black person can call another, you will change your mind after visiting the Uncle Tom’s Historic Site in Dresden, Ontario, Canada, near Detroit.

Josiah Henson, the model for Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher’s Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He also led the building of a thriving community in Canada for escaped slaves and free black men and women prior to the Civil War.

This summer, pack up your family and take a road trip to learn about a remarkable yet unknown piece about black history. NorthStar published the original story on March 22, 2013. We publishing it again as part of our black travel series in which we are encouraging black families to visit sites that tell the true story of our remarkable heritage.

by Frederick H. Lowe
Tours began May 18 at Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, a Canadian tourist attraction that honors a man whose character has become so diminished and so distorted over time by African Americans that it is nothing short of mind boggling.

Uncle Tom is firmly associated with the Rev. Josiah Henson, a slave who escaped with his first wife, Charlotte, and the couple’s children in 1830 from Owensboro, Ky., where he had been a trusted plantation overseer and a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Rev. Josiah Henson
Rev. Josiah Henson

The Henson family walked for six days through Indiana, Ohio and New York before finally reaching Fort Erie, Canada, where Henson dropped to his knees and kissed the ground. Henson and his wife carried their youngest children on their backs in knapsacks. Their oldest boy walked. The family initially settled in Fort Erie, a town on the Niagara River, where Henson enrolled his son, Tom, in school. The elder Henson neither could neither read nor write, so his son taught him.

A Historic Site
Once a free man, Henson became an abolitionist and a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He helped 118 black men and women escape to Canada, said Steven Cook, site director and curator of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, which is located on Uncle Tom’s Road in Dresden, Ontario, Canada, an hour and half northeast of Detroit.

Henson was also instrumental in the planning of Dawn, a township that was home to 500 blacks. Dawn included a vocational school called the British American Institute and a commercial sawmill, according toAfricana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience.

The Dresden site includes Henson’s two-story clapboard house, where he lived with his second wife, Nancy Gambril, a 5,200 square-foot North Star Theater, where visitors will see a 12-minute video of the life of Henson. His first wife, Charlotte, died in 1852.

The township also has a museum, which includes a speculum oris, a scissor-shaped instrument slave owners used to open slaves’ mouths to force feed them so they could not escape servitude by starving themselves to death, Cook tells The NorthStar News & Analysis.

Also on display are neck yokes, an iron device with prongs on both ends, billy clubs and cages with bells that fit over slaves’ faces and rested on their shoulders.  The site, which is owned by the Ontario Heritage Trust, also includes a gift shop, a smokehouse, a pioneer church constructed around 1850 and the Henson family cemetery.

The location is a registered Canadian National Historic Site.  “Josiah Henson was a man of historic significance,” Cook said.

uncle-toms-cabin-historic-site-nsn032213The site, which remains open until October 25, also puts to rest the theatrically created myth surrounding Uncle Tom or Reverend Henson.

For one African American to call another an “Uncle Tom” is an insult so damning and disrespectful that it could easily lead to a fistfight or worse. It is even worse than one black person calling another ‘my nigger’ as Dr. Dre referred to his best friend in his famous music video “ain’t nuthin’ but a g thang.” In this case, it was a term of endearment.

Uncle Tom became known worldwide through Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Life Among the Lowly,” which was published on March 20, 1852. Uncle Tom was a composite character. The Rev. Josiah Henson, now living in Canada and a minister of the British Methodist Episcopal Church, was part of the composite, although Stowe and Henson never met.

Henson with his second wife Nancy Gambril
Henson with his second wife Nancy Gambril

“It’s shrouded in mystery,” said Cook, who has visited Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother’s house in Andover, Mass., and studied her voluminous correspondence. “She never mentions meeting Josiah Henson.”

So how did Henson become so closely associated with the fictional character of Uncle Tom?

In 1849, Henson, who had a phenomenal  memory, wrote The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. The autobiography became the basis of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Stowe wrote a letter of introduction to Henson’s publisher, Arthur D. Phelps, stating: “The numerous friends of the author of this work will need no greater recognition than his name to make it welcome. Among all the singular and interesting records to which the institution of American slavery has given rise, we know of none more striking, more characteristic and instructive, than that of Josiah Henson.”

The U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service on Monday named Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house in Hartford, Conn., a National Historic Landmark.

The Myth Of Uncle Tom Unraveled

Cover of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin
Cover of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin

So how did Uncle Tom become a caricature who shuffled and was always subservient to whites?

Cook blames the white-owned theater companies that operated during the period for the distortion. The companies produced “Tom shows,” which were minstrel shows that depicted comical black men currying favor, cowering, bowing and shuffling to the demands of white people.

Because it was illegal at the time for black and white actors to work together on the same stage, white men in black face portrayed African Americans.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel depicted the harsh realities of slavery, but “Tom shows” played Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” to convey the happiness of slaves of living on plantations.  More people saw “Tom shows” than read Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

“The plays were popular in the United States and Europe,” Cook said.

Slavery Was Abolished in Canada

Although Canada was the promised land for escaping slaves, Canada had slaves who worked as cooks and house servants.

John Graves Sincoe, lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, which is now Ontario, however, abolished slavery with the Act Against Slavery, which passed in 1793.

Individuals who were slaves at the time the law was enacted remained in bondage, but once their children reached the age of 25, they were free.  The Act Against Slavery also prevented the further importation of slaves to Canada.

England's Queen Victoria greets Rev. Henson
England’s Queen Victoria greets Rev. Henson

Henson Met Queen Victoria and President Hayes

As a Canadian, Queen Victoria hosted Henson at Windsor Castle on March 5, 1877.  After returning from London, Henson lunched with President Rutherford B. Hayes through a meeting arranged by Frederick Douglass.

Ironically, Hayes removed the remaining Union troops from South Carolina and Louisiana as part of the compromise of 1877 so he could win the White House over New York Democrat Samuel Tilden.

The Union Troops protected the rights of newly freed African Americans and Republicans from racist Democrats who instituted a new form of slavery through the establishment of black codes.

Henson died in 1883. He was 93 years old.

Uncle Tom Historic Site’s website is www.uncletomscabin.org. The telephone number is 519 683 2978. Admission is $6.25 Canadian for adults, $5.25 Canadian for seniors, $4.50 Canadian for children 6 to 12. Children under 6 are free. Families are charged $20 Canadian. If you visit Canada, you will need a U.S. passport to cross the border into Canada. So order it now if you don’t have one. Visit any post office or passport office for a passport application. The passport office website is http://travel.state.gov/passport/about/about_894.html

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