Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site in Dresden, Ontario, changes its name to reclaim the legacy of Josiah Henson, renowned 19th-century abolitionist, Underground Railroad conductor and preacher
DRESDEN, ON, July 30, 2022 /CNW/ – Today, the Ontario Heritage Trust announced it has renamed Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site to the Josiah Henson Museum of African-Canadian History in honour of Josiah Henson. This change is a positive step forward as the museum moves away from the negative connotation associated with the term “Uncle Tom” and provides further recognition to an important figure in the abolition movement in the U.S. and Canada.
Josiah Henson is a celebrated figure known for his fight against American slavery. As a conductor of the Underground Railroad, he led 118 people escaping slavery to freedom in Canada, where he helped establish a community for refugees seeking a better life. His 1849 autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, detailing his own life of enslavement and escape, was used by Harriet Beecher Stowe in the defense of her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Beecher Stowe stated that Henson’s life had provided her with “concepts and incidents” into the character of Tom. Her book became an international bestseller and helped to propel the American Civil War. Henson’s anti-slavery work and his connection to Beecher Stowe’s novel made him one of the most famous Canadians of his day.
“Reverend Josiah Henson was a remarkable leader who embodied bravery and perseverance. After gaining his freedom, he spent his life empowering and uplifting his community, but unfortunately, his real-life story and achievements were overshadowed by the fictional Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” said museum manager Steven Cook. “During his lifetime, Henson expressed a desire to reclaim his name and legacy. We are honoured to help make this a reality here in Ontario where he chose to build a new life.”
Located in Dresden, the five-acre museum complex hosts Henson’s last home – a two-story cabin – as well as the church where Henson preached to his congregation. Also on-site is the Josiah Henson Interpretive Centre, which houses a collection of artifacts associated with the abolitionist era and educational materials on the impact of slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The new name will better reflect the museum’s vision and mandate to educate the public about Josiah Henson’s legacy: Henson founded the Dawn Settlement near Dresden and helped establish the British American Institute, where the free Black population and recently settled refugees of slavery were provided an education and taught trades skills. Through his memoirs and speaking engagements, he helped put Canada on the map as a haven for freedom seekers.
“Josiah Henson is not well known in Canadian history. He should be,” said Beth Hanna, CEO of the Ontario Heritage Trust. “His story sheds light on the realities of slavery and on those who fought for freedom for themselves and others. He worked to provide a place of safety, where Black refugees from slavery could thrive and build lives based on the opportunities provided by community, education, land and personhood.”
The renaming effort is part of the Trust’s larger work to review all its properties and programs through an inclusive and anti-racist lens. Following feedback about the term ‘Uncle Tom,’ which is considered derogatory by many within the Black community, the Trust determined that renaming the site was the best step towards addressing hurtful language while offering the opportunity to further recognize Henson as a figure of provincial, national and international significance.
“When Beecher Stowe created Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she intended to show the harsh realities of slavery and portrayed Uncle Tom as a man of principle who protected other enslaved people, but this was corrupted by racist anti-Tom minstrel shows that turned the character into comic relief, which is why the term is now used in a derogatory way,” said Steven Cook. “We’re continuing to correct the myth behind ‘Uncle Tom’ and will use this as a teaching tool to talk about anti-Black racism and the challenges Black people are still facing today.”
The Josiah Henson Museum of African-Canadian History is open Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The museum will close for the season on October 21, 2022. Tours will be available by appointment only from November 1, 2022, through April 30, 2023. Visit our website for more information about the museum and upcoming programs.
- The Josiah Henson Museum of African-Canadian History is a two-hectare (five-acre) complex that includes the Josiah Henson House, a pioneer church, an interpretive centre as well as a collection of artifacts and buildings related to Dawn Settlement and the British American Institute.
- The museum was first opened to the public as a tourist attraction in 1948 and went through several name changes: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1948), “Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Museum” (1964) and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site” (1995).
- The Ontario Heritage Trust, an agency of the Government of Ontario, acquired the museum in 2005.
- Visit www.heritagetrust.on.ca/reclaiming for more details about the renaming of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site
- Explore the Ontario Heritage Trust’s Black heritage and history resources
- Download the media kit
The Ontario Heritage Trust (the Trust) is an agency of the Government of Ontario. The Trust conserves, interprets and shares Ontario’s heritage. We conserve provincially significant cultural and natural, tangible and intangible heritage, interpret Ontario’s history, celebrate its diversity and educate Ontarians of its importance in our society. The Trust envisions an Ontario where we conserve, value and share the places and landscapes, histories, traditions and stories that embody our heritage, now and for future generations.
SOURCE Ontario Heritage Trust