After several months of delay due to the Covid pandemic, the brand-new Josiah Henson Museum in north Bethesda has just opened to the public. It is definitely worth a visit! The Museum tells the story of one of the most astounding and consequential persons to ever live in Montgomery County.
Josiah Henson was born into slavery in the last years of the 1700s in Charles County, Maryland. He was sold at age nine and sent to a plantation in Montgomery County. At first, he obediently served his master, Isaac Riley, and gradually became a trusted household member. This situation continued for more than two decades until Riley sent Henson and his relatives “down the river” to another Riley family plantation in Kentucky. Henson was appalled at conditions in the South, which were even worse than he had experienced in Maryland. Henson tried to buy his freedom, but was tricked by Riley and remained enslaved.
In 1830, Josiah Henson and his wife Charlotte and four children escaped from Kentucky, walked 600 miles through dangerous country to freedom in Canada, with Henson carrying two toddlers on his back the whole way. They braved vicious slave catchers and almost starved to death on their incredible journey.
According to the Museum Site Manager Mark Thorne, Henson later “served as a Conductor on the Underground Railroad and brought 118 slaves to freedom.” In 1849 Henson wrote his autobiography, which described the terrible realities of slavery in Maryland and Kentucky. This non-fiction work was a major source for Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852, in writing her classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her best-selling novel (the most popular book in America at the time, after the Bible) was credited by President Lincoln with helping to trigger the Civil War and end slavery. When pro-slavery advocates protested that the treatment of slaves shown in Stowe’s novel was too harsh, she specifically cited Henson’s autobiography as a major source, in her 1853 publication The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
In Ontario, Henson founded a town, learned to read, became a Methodist minister, served as an officer in the Canadian Army militia, captured a rebel ship, traveled to England to exhibit his lumber mill products at the Great Exhibition of 1851 (where he was the only black exhibitor), and met three times with Queen Victoria!
The Henson plantation site here in Montgomery County is the only remaining place in the United States where a Henson structure can be visited by the public. The site is on the National Register of Historic Places, and it represents a large part of the county’s local history. According to Cassandra Michaud, the lead archaeologist for the Henson project, “In the period before the Civil War, 30 to 40 percent of the county’s residents were enslaved black people.”
A visit to the Museum starts by registering ahead of time for a timed tour. After parking at the Kennedy/Shriver Aquatic Center and walking across the street to 11410 Old Georgetown Road, you will view an engaging 12-minute film about Henson’s amazing life. Then you walk a few yards to the Riley/Henson house, where well-done exhibits, sketches and artifacts fill in Henson’s achievements. The climax is the adjacent tiny log kitchen, where Henson was sometimes forced to sleep on the floor. Incredibly, Montgomery Parks archaeologists and volunteers have been able to find the actual dirt floor where Josiah Henson slept – and where he rose up to help end slavery in America.
For information on timed reservations, see: https://www.montgomeryparks.org/parks-and-trails/josiah-henson-park/ Adult admission is $5, seniors and children 6-17 is $4.
Photos courtesy Lew Toulmin