Uncle Tom lived many lives.
To the thousands of mid-19th-century readers of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he was a heroic slave, his cabin home was heralded as a symbol of self-sacrifice. Yet to 20th century black Americans, his name lived as a symbol of subservience.
To Stowe, Uncle Tom lived the fictional personification of the suffering of slavery as recounted to her by a Marylander who experienced it firsthand.
The man who inspired Uncle Tom, Josiah Henson, was born into slavery near Port Tobacco in Charles County around 1789. Auctioned off as a child to pay his owner’s debt, Henson endured numerous trials and abuse, before earning the trust of his slaveholder by intelligence and skill.
Eventually, he escaped to Canada with his wife and children. There he established a settlement and school for fugitives and repeatedly returned to the United States to help lead others to freedom along the Underground Railroad.
Henson became a popular preacher, lecturer and international celebrity. Before Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he published with abolitionist friend Samuel Atkins Eliot his own bestselling autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself.
Now, Southern Maryland author and professor emerita at College of Southern Maryland Edna M. Troiano gives Josiah Henson and his alter-ego Uncle Tom new life. Her book, Uncle Tom’s Journey from Maryland to Canada: The Life of Josiah Henson, chronicles his experiences by exploring sites in Maryland devoted to his memory.
Troiano wrote this book, she says, because learning of Henson’s existence on her 2016 visit to the La Grange historic site in La Plata was such an eye-opener.
“I had never heard of him,” she explained. “It bothered me that someone so famous, so heroic, should have faded from history when it seems to me when we speak of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, we should say Josiah Henson right along with them.”
To get to know this less-storied Maryland hero, get your copy at www.arcadiapublishing.com.