Josiah Henson helped free over a hundred slaves long before the Underground Railroad and established the first Laborers School for fugitive slaves.
Henson was an author, abolitionist and minister whose story inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” which came in print on March 20, 1852.
Born into slavery in Port Tobacco Charles County, Maryland around 1789, Henson’s first memory was of his father being whipped, having his ear cut off, and sold off as punishment for striking a white man who had attempted to rape his wife.
Henson never saw his father again and as a child, he endured countless beatings. Although he hadn’t learned to read and write at the time, he was reportedly eloquent and later became a great preacher.
He would later escape from slavery to Upper Canada in 1930 and founded a settlement and laborer’s school for fugitive slaves at Dawn, near Dresden in Kent County, Upper Canada of British Canada.
He defied all odds and returned to the United States many times to lead over a hundred other slaves to freedom. In 1849, he published his autobiography, one of the first slave narratives, according to NPR.
Henson also had a farm, started a gristmill, bred horses, and even built a sawmill for high-quality black lumber that won him a medal at the first World’s Fair in London 10 years later, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
Prior to the Civil War, Henson reportedly traveled between Ontario and Boston preaching. Whilst on one such trip, Henson met abolitionist Samuel Atkins Eliot, a former mayor of Boston and state legislator who later served in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Eliot offered to pen Henson’s story as a memoir. In 1848, “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave” was published in early 1849.
The following year, Henson met Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe who became really interested in his story as he narrated detailed peculiarities of his experience and that of other slaves.
By March 1851, Stowe wrote to Gamaliel Bailey, the editor, and publisher of ‘The National Era’, a Washington antislavery paper, and offered him Henson’s story titled “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin debuted on June 5, 1851, and it ran in 41 weekly installments for 10 months. The story caught the capital city’s attention and the paper’s subscriber base grew by 26 percent with an estimated 50,000 people reading the story.
This development urged John P. Jewett and Company to publish it as a novel in two volumes of 312 pages each. Stowe’s goal as specified in the first edition’s preface was “to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race”.
“When this novel of Mrs. Stowe came out, it shook the foundations of this world… It shook the Americans out of their shoes and of their shirts. It left some of them on the sandbar barefooted and scratching their heads, so they came to the conclusion that the whole thing was a fabrication,” Henson reportedly wrote.
The cabin where Henson lived is now known as Bethesda, Md. and has been sold to the Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission.