Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The History Behind "Uncle Tom"

   Where did the original idea of "Uncle Tom" come from and why aren’t people being taught who this person really was?

  On August 6th, 1986 an article appeared in the Niagara Gazette about my family chronicling the ancestral link between Josiah Henson and then Niagara Falls Native, Inez Dorsey Frank; late mother of current Black Pioneers of Niagara Falls President Philip B. Frank, my Father. Before there was a Harriet Tubman, Josiah Henson was a forerunner of the Underground Railroad, a community activist, institution builder, black militia leader and said relative of the famous explorer Matthew Henson who traveled to the North Pole. It has also been said that Harriet Beecher Stowe interviewed Josiah Henson and used elements of his life used to write the famous novel 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'.

My Grandmother, Inez Dorsey Frank

   Born into slavery in Charles County Maryland on June 15th, 1789, Henson became a Reverend in his late teens and married in his early twenties. He spent most of his life enslaved until being literally sold down the river to his master's brother in the Deep South. Henson eventually took his wife and four sons to freedom in Canada; a trip that generally took a couple months on foot. Henson had this to say about his escape, "I determined to make my escape to Canada, about which I had heard something, as beyond the limits of the United States; for, notwithstanding there were free States in the Union, I felt that I should be safer under an entirely foreign jurisdiction. The slave States had their emissaries in the others, and I feared that I might fall into their hands, and need a stronger protection than might be afforded me by public opinion in the northern States at that time."

   Around 1834, Henson with 12 associates, established a settlement of fugitive slaves on government land. One of the observations Henson made about fugitive slaves arriving to this settlement was, "the mere delight the slave took in his freedom, rendered him, at first, contented with a lot far inferior to that which he might have attained. Then his ignorance led him to make unprofitable bargains. I saw the effect of these things so clearly that I could not help trying to make my friends and neighbors see it too; and I set seriously about the business of lecturing upon the subject of crops, wages, and profits, as if I had been brought up to it. I insisted on the necessity of their raising their own crops, saving their own wages, and securing the profits of their own labor, with such plain arguments as occurred to me, and were as clear to their comprehension as to mine."

   In 1836, Henson convinced members of this settlement to invest their earnings into land in order to be self-sufficient and he brokered a deal to purchase 200 acres of land, thus founding a Community. This land was in a place called the Dawn Township, and this Community was called the Dawn Settlement. Henson had this to say about Immigration and assisting others to become a part of this Community, "The immigration from the United States was incessant, and some, I am not unwilling to admit, were brought hither with my knowledge and connivance. I was glad to help such of my old friends as had the spirit to make the attempt to free themselves; and I made more than one trip, about this time, to Maryland and Kentucky, with the expectation, in which I was not disappointed, that some might be enabled to follow in my footsteps. I knew the route pretty well, and had much greater facilities for travelling than when I came out of that Egypt for the first time." In 1837, Henson, as a prominent leader of the Dawn Community led a Black Militia Unit during the Rebellion of 1837 and advocated in support of literacy and education.

   In 1842 Henson founded The British-American Institute; a Vocational School for all ages that trained teachers, provided a general education and taught mechanic/domestic art. The goal, as Henson wrote, was "to cultivate the entire being, and elicit the fairest and fullest possible development of the physical, intellectual and moral powers. Such an establishment would train up those who would afterwards instruct others; and we should thus gradually become independent of the white man for our intellectual progress, as we might be also for our physical prosperity."

  In regards to these great endeavors of helping build an Institution and establish a Community, Henson concluded, "We look to the school, and the possession of landed property by individuals, as two great means of the elevation of our oppressed and degraded race to a participation in the blessings, as they have hitherto been permitted to share only the miseries and vices, of civilization. My efforts to aid them, in every way in my power, and to procure the aid of others for them, have been constant."

   So the next time you hear someone call someone an Uncle Tom, let them know what's real. Not knowing the actual character, contributions and courage of the man behind the fictitious name 'Tom' of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, is a tragedy.  


*The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself

*The Niagara Gazette Special Supplement ('Freedom road to Niagara' August 6th, 1986)