Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

'Uncle Tom' Uncovered

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

'Uncle Tom' Uncovered

Article excerpt

If anthropology professor Julia King had her way, an old plantation in the quiet town of I.a Plata, Maryland would receive a historic marker that pays homage to a runaway slavc-turncd-abolitionist minister who seldom gets his due.

That's because - through research and an archaeological dig this past summer - King and some of her current and former students concluded that the onetime plantation is the likely birthplace of Josiah Henson, a figure whose narrative is believed to have inspired Uncle Tom's Cabin, the much-heralded anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

"Ultimately, we want 'Henson' to roll off everyone's tongue much like 'Tubman,' 'Washington,' or 'Lincoln' do," King, who teaches at St. Mary's College of Maryland, tells Diverse.

"Our goal is to see this property preserved and to hear more about Henson," King says during a recent interview underneath a tree near the big house on the plantation. "There's a huge community of people who don't know who this man was."

King is by no means alone in her effort, which has drawn support from the Charles County NAACP.

"This is extremely important for African-Americans in Charles County, especially our young people," says Janice Wilson, president of the Charles County branch of the NAACP. "History is vital to future success and the history of Josiah Henson must be told to students here in Charles County and beyond."

Truth behind the tale

A sad irony is that, while Henson struggled to find freedom for himself and for his family and ultimately became a major figure on the Underground Railroad, the fictional character that his narrative inspired - Uncle Tom - has become a pejorative that African-Americans often use to brand their brethren who are seen as race traitors or too subservient to Whites.

Thus, in order to embrace the cause for Henson, one has to look past the strange evolution of the term "Uncle Tom" and realize that Henson not only predates the term but led a remarkable life that would exempt him from the term's contemporary application.

Henson, after all, is credited with having led more than 200 slaves to Canada and set up a settlement for fugitive slaves, where they learned trades, raised their own crops and had lives of selfsufficiency, according to his biography on the African American Registry, a nonprofit education organization.

"I would love for his story to be shared for others to know of his resilience, faith and devotion to his family while living under deplorable conditions as a slave," says Wilson, who adds that she would like to see Henson's story featured more frequently and more prominently in schools both local and nationwide.

"Even under these extreme circumstances, he found the strength to help others along the way," Wilson says. "His story is an inspiration for everyone."

Professor King says one of the best ways to honor Henson's contributions to the African-American struggle for freedom is to recognize his birthplace, much like the birthplaces of George Washington and other historic American figures are recognized.

The lessons that Henson learned here in La Plata were unlike anything that Washington experienced in his birthplace in Virginia.

"As was true for so many enslaved children, Henson's earliest conscious memories were of the most dreadful and bloodiest moments of slavery," states one report on his early years. …

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