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The Man Who Became Uncle Tom

Harriet Beecher Stowe said that Josiah Henson’s life had inspired her most famous character. But Henson longed to be recognized by his own name.

Who was Josiah Henson? Born in 1789, according to his autobiography, he was enslaved in Maryland and Kentucky and served as an overseer before escaping to Canada in 1830. By 1862, when Lincoln checked out the Key, Henson had helped found a 200-acre settlement in Ontario, known as Dawn, which provided a refuge for hundreds of free Black people who had fled bondage in America. He had also made numerous return trips to the American South to help guide enslaved people to freedom. In total, Henson said, he freed 118 people; by comparison, Harriet Tubman is believed to have freed about 70.

I first learned about Henson’s remarkable life a year or so ago, as I was doing research for a different story. I wondered why I hadn’t heard of him sooner. He was one of the first Black people to be an exhibitor at a World’s Fair. He met with President Rutherford B. Hayes and Queen Victoria. He built businesses that gave Black fugitives a livelihood after years of exploitation. Why weren’t American students being taught about Henson when they learned about Tubman, or assigned his autobiography alongside Frederick Douglass’s?

One reason might be that Henson chose, after escaping the United States at age 41, to spend the rest of his life in Canada, the country that gave him his freedom and full citizenship. And perhaps educators have been reluctant to spend too much time on a man known as “the original Uncle Tom” when that term has become a virulent insult.

But Henson was not Uncle Tom. Despite being forever linked with the fictional character after Stowe revealed him as a source of inspiration, he longed to be recognized by his own name, and for his own achievements. And he publicly wrestled with the role he had played, as an overseer, in abetting slavery’s violence and cruelty.

Henson’s biography and legacy, I came to see, defy easy categorization. His is not a linear story of triumph over hardship. Rather, it is a story that reflects the complexity and moral incongruence that animated the lives of enslavers and shaped the lives of the enslaved. It is a story of how a man who was at once a victim and a perpetuator of slavery’s evils tried, and failed, and hoped, and evolved, and regretted, and mourned, and tried again. It is a story that reveals the impossibility of being a moral person in a fundamentally immoral system.