The Josiah Henson Museum & Park, located in North Bethesda MD, is the former plantation property of Isaac Riley, who enslaved the Rev. Josiah Henson in the early to mid-1800s. This little known museum is a gem, offering a window into the life of Josiah Henson, the real life minister who inspired Harriet Beecher-Stowe to create the character of Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Henson’s 1849 autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada profoundly touched Stowe. She created the character, Uncle Tom, after reading his narrative and interviewing him in person.
In addition to sharing Henson’s story, the museum points out that racism profoundly warped how we think of the Uncle Tom character, twisting it into first a distorted caricature and then ugly stereotype very different than how Stowe portrayed him. It was both surprising and profoundly moving to learn about the real man behind this character in a profoundly influential novel. Stowe’s novel ended up catalyzing the abolitionist movement, impacting American history in a way that few other novels have. After the Uncle Tom stereotype took hold, Henson proclaimed, “My name is not Tom & never was Tom…My name is Josiah Henson, always was, always will be.”
Both Josiah Henson and his Eastern Shore counterpart, Harriet Tubman, were leading figures of their time, contributing significantly to the abolitionist movement and the fight against slavery. However, Harriet Tubman is generally considered to be more famous during their lifetimes and even today, thanks to the movie Harriet and the movement to put her image onto U.S. currency. Her daring and courageous missions to rescue enslaved people further elevated her fame and solidified her legacy as a prominent American historical figure.
Like Tubman, after his escape to freedom with his family, Henson returned multiple times to southern territory to rescue others still enslaved. In all, he rescued more than 100 other men, women and children.
Enslaved in Maryland
Josiah Henson was born into slavery in 1789 in Charles County. One of his earliest memories was of witnessing his father being beaten for defending Henson’s mother from being sexually abused by the white overseer. His father never fully recovered from the beating. Dr. Josiah McPherson, who enslaved Henson, his father and his mother, sold his father “down south” as “damaged property.” Sadly, Henson never saw his father again.
While still a young child, an Adam Robb purchased him, but after Henson became ill, Robb transferred him to the Isaac Riley plantation in 1795 to be with his mother, Ella. Henson’s life on the Riley plantation was similar to that of other enlaved children. The Rileys forced him to work at a very young age. Riley alloted only minimal clothing, food and shelter to the people he enslaved, causing them to suffer from exposure, discomfort and hunger.
Amazingly, Henson found solace in religion, finding that his Christian belief provided him a way to cope with his situation, even moving him to extend forgiveness and tolerance to the Rileys. He became an ordained Methodist minister in 1828. The Rileys’ fortunes took a dramatic downturn in 1825, causing him to transfer the people he enslaved to his brother’s Kentucky farm, rather than risk them being seized to pay his debt.
The Rileys enslaved Henson for more than 30 years, until Henson, along with his wife and young children, escaped from Kentucky to Canada in 1830. When he published his autobiography, he became an internationally known celebrity and traveled the world to share his story and try to fundraise for the Dawn Settlement in Ontario, a place of refuge for former slaves in the United States.
The museum consists of the visitor center, the former Riley home and about four additional acres of land. Most of the former Riley plantation is now expensive suburban neighborhoods. The Riley house was a typical Montgomery County farmhouse for the early 1800s. However, it is not set up as a house museum but as a museum telling Josiah Henson’s life story.
The Josiah Henson Museum also tells the story of slavery in Maryland and specifically, in Montgomery County, abolitionists and the economy surrounding the time period. For Maryland’s first 230 years as a colony and then as a state, chattel slavery was legal. The labor of enslaved people of African descent underpinned Maryland’s economy. When changes in agricultural practice diminished the dependence on enslaved labor, Marylanders increased their participation in the very lucrative domestic slave trade, tearing apart enslaved families. The Rileys likewise sold off the people they enslaved when their fortunes took a downturn. Slavery ended in 1864 in Maryland, and then throughout the United States with the passage of the 13th Amendment. The museum makes the point that full integration and equality is still a work in progress.
The museum sponsors archeological investigations into sites on its property, uncovering artifacts that provide a direct link to the daily lives of people Riley enslaved who do not appear in written records.
The Josiah Henson Park is part of the National Park Service National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program.
Know Before You Go
Parking is only available at the Kennedy Shriver Aquatic Center, 1.5 blocks away at 5900 Executive Boulevard, North Bethesda, with limited accessible parking at the museum.
The grounds and building interiors are fully accessible; however, several historical elements may not be physically accessible. Parks staff will assist in providing equivalent interpretation when requested.
Getting there: 11410 Old Georgetown Rd, North Bethesda, MD
Hours: The Park is open sunrise to sunset. Museum hours are Friday – Saturday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., Sunday noon to 4 p.m.
Website: Josiah Henson Museum
Interested in visiting the sites important to other Black and African American heroes? Be sure to read about these daytrip destinations:
- Booker T Washington National Monument
- Bucktown General Store (Harriet Tubman)
- Frederick Douglass Driving Tour
- Frederick Douglass House
- Harriet Tubman gravesite
- Harriet Tubman National Historic Park
- Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center
- Sojourner Truth Driving Tour
- Sojourner Truth Interpretive Hike
- William Still / Underground Railroad
Looking for other interesting things to see and do in Montgomery County? Check out the places below: