Remembering Josiah Henson

, Spencer Irvine, 3 Comments

Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth are well-known former slaves and abolitionists in pre-American Civil War history, but Josiah Henson has been seemingly forgotten by history. At the Josiah Henson Leadership Conference held in the Maryland suburbs outside of Washington, D.C., former congressman Al Wynn (D-MD) gave the introductory remarks to open the campaign for a local museum and education center to honor Henson’s contributions to a slave-free society. Many Americans do not know about Josiah Henson, said Wynn, even admitting that he never heard of Henson’s tenure as a Maryland congressman until the memorial campaign reached out to him.

josiah henson photoJosiah Henson was a former slave-turned-slave-liberator from the state of Maryland. Henson was trusted by his slave masters who made him an overseer of his fellow slaves, but he “had a much bigger vision: freedom” and as Wynn noted, Henson “envisioned a fugitive slave colony in Canada.” Henson eventually ran away from his slave owners and took his family north to Canada, becoming a circuit speaker and a respected gentleman later in life. Wynn pointed out that Henson’s life was one of selfless service and he was a man of his word. He said, “[Henson] had integrity and when he had opportunities to escape [alone, but] he didn’t” in order to try to take his entire family north to Canada. Wynn continued, “He came back…to a slaveholding state as a conductor on the Underground Railroad so he could help others come to freedom.”

The University of North Carolina (UNC) claims Henson escaped to Ontario in 1830 with his wife and children. He founded the British American Institute in 1842, which UNC said was “an Afro-Canadian community and industrial school intended as a refuge for escaped slaves.” He did learn to read and write while living in Canada, but he dictated his life story to an unnamed author. His autobiography was first published in 1849 and some believed elements of his life story inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe in her famous novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” A devout Christian from his conversion in childhood to the Methodist sect, thanks to his mother, Henson recognized God’s role in his life in his life narrative and story:

“I will conclude my narrative, by simply recording my gratitude, heartfelt and inexpressible, to God, and to many of my fellow-men, for the vast improvement in my condition, both physical and mental; for the great degree of comfort with which I am surrounded; for the good I have been enabled to effect; for the light which has risen upon me; for the religious privileges I enjoy, and the religious hopes I am permitted to cherish; for the prospects opening to my children, so different from what they might have been; and, finally, for the cheering expectation of benefiting not only the present, but many future generations of my race.”

Photo by Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University

Photo by Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University