black history monthContemporary readers of  Uncle Tom’s Cabin have no idea that there was a real Uncle Tom. There is a story that is seldom told of the man who Ms Beecher Stowe based her tale on. His name was Josiah Henson.

I don’t recall hearing of him until recently.

Neither did the readers of the 1850s. His name was Josiah Henson. He was born a slave in Maryland in 1789. Harriet Beecher Stowe admitted that his story was part of the inspiration for her novel.

The traditional story runs something like this: slavery was a degrading, humiliating, demoralizing experience. Any black man or woman who endured it was reduced to subhuman status. Therefore they and their descendants, even when emancipated, would have to be treated like children at best – or creatures from an alien planet at worst. Before and after the Civil War, this idea played no small part in poisoning the idea of black equality in the American public mind, North and South.

Josiah Henson gives us a very different picture of slavery in his autobiography, which was published in 1849. When he was still in his teens, his master, Isaac Riley, began calling him “a smart fellow.” His fellow slaves predicted he would do “great things” when he became a man. Soon he was vowing to “out-hoe, out-reap, out-husk, out-dance, out-everything every competitor.” He did not hesitate to compete with white men as well as fellow slaves. He had a low opinion of the farm’s sloppy careless overseer. When he caught the man defrauding the master, Henson reported him.

Isaac Riley fired the thief and Henson asked for a chance to oversee the farm. He was soon raising “more than double the crops, with more cheerful and willing labor, than was ever seen on the estate before.” Not only did he superintend the day to day work, he brought the harvested wheat and tobacco to market and bargained skillfully to bring home astonishing profits.

When Riley welched on his promise to let Henson buy his freedom for a reasonable price, he quietly planned and executed an escape to Canada with his wife and four children. There he started a sawmill that was soon selling thousands of feet of black walnut lumber in Boston and New York. He persuaded the Canadian government to let him start a manual labor school to teach escaped slaves skills that would increase their earning power.

He met Queen Victoria. He was welcomed to the White House by President  Rutherford Hayes.

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