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Historic Uncle Tom's Cabin Saved

An 18th century house in the Washington, D.C. suburbs has gotten a lot of media attention lately. It has been acquired by Montgomery County, Maryland as historic property. And not only because it's one of the oldest homes in the county. It is also associated with the man who served as the inspiration for the character "Uncle Tom" in Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous novel about slavery in the pre-Civil War South, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Although his name is not well known today, Josiah Henson was one of the first slaves to write his memoirs after escaping to freedom. When Harriet Beecher Stowe acknowledged that Henson's writings were the inspiration for her 1852 novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, he became a celebrity.

"People wanted to know his life story," says Gwen Wright, a historian and acting chief of Montgomery County's Planning Commission. He was happy to oblige.

"Josiah Henson republished his memoirs as The Memoirs of Uncle Tom," Wright says. "He traveled the country and traveled to England. He was presented to Queen Victoria who wanted to meet him."

Queen Victoria was among the thousands around the world who read Uncle Tom's Cabin. The story generated tremendous support for the abolition of slavery in the United States.

Historian Gwen Wright says even President Abraham Lincoln was well aware of the book's impact. "When finally, after the start of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln actually met Harriet Beecher Stowe, his comment was, 'So this is the little lady who started this great war,'" Wright says. "I think in his mind he saw the book Uncle Tom's Cabin having that major an impact."

In the early 1800's, the man who became known as Uncle Tom - Josiah Henson -- was owned by the Riley family until he escaped to the north. Their farmhouse, where Henson worked as a slave, became a historic landmark in 1979.

People in Maryland refer to at least part of the structure - incorrectly - as "Uncle Tom's cabin." But Gwen Wright is quick to point out "it is not a slave cabin." The so-called cabin is actually a log kitchen wing attached to the Riley's 18th century farmhouse. "We actually know - again from Josiah Henson's writing - that he actually did sleep in the kitchen, though."

And he returned to the property many years later, after the Civil War was over. Gwen Wright says his former master was dead, but Mrs. Riley was still living on the farm, which had fallen into disrepair.

"And he went up and knocked on the door, and Mrs. Riley saw him," Wright says. "He was dressed in a suit and fine clothes, and at first she didn't know who he was. And he had to convince her. She said, 'It is you, Si. Oh my gosh, you are a gentleman now.' And what I love about the story was his response was, 'Well Ms. Riley, I always was.'"

Montgomery County is paying $1 million to the current owners of the Riley farmhouse, which is now in the midst of a densely populated neighborhood and sits on a busy road, slightly sheltered behind some trees

Greg Mallet-Prevost's mother, who died in September at the age of 100, had lived there for the last 40 years. He says she had wanted someone in the family to keep the house, but he believes she would be happy with the way things turned out.

"If you have it, you have to keep the public away in a sense just be safe in this day and age," he says. "So I think this was the best scenario and, it's probably the scenario my parents would have enjoyed the most."

The deed to the property will be transferred to Montgomery County in a ceremony on Monday, the national holiday commemorating the birth of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

Derick Berlage, chairman of the Maryland National Park and Planning Commission, says just how the property will be shared with the public hasn't been decided

"Perhaps it could be a museum, perhaps an educational center," he suggests. "We haven't settled on that yet, because we want to talk to the community, and make a decision together about how the property gets used."

But one thing is for certain, "Uncle Tom's cabin" -- the house behind the man behind the novel -- will be preserved for future generations.

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