I recently read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a novel about slavery in the U.S. It was first published in 1852, and within the first year sold 300,000 copies in the U.S. and over a million copies in Britain. This made it the best-selling novel of the 19th century.
The book helped Americans see the ugliness of slavery, and is widely recognized as a catalyst that triggered the civil war, ultimately leading to the emancipation of African Americans.
In fact, when President Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he exclaimed,
“So this is the little lady who started this great war!”
Along with her family, she was part of helping runaway slaves find freedom. But it wasn’t until she read the autobiography of a former slave named Josiah Henson that she was inspired to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, based loosely on Josiah Henson’s life.
After some research, I learned that in 1830, Henson and his family escaped from the U.S. to Upper Canada and settled in what is now Southwestern Ontario. I was delighted to discover that people can still visit the property where the Hensons settled, which ended up being the last stop for many slaves on the underground railroad. The historical site has affectionately been named Uncle Tom’s Cabin, highlighting the fact that Josiah Henson’s life served as inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel.
So on a humid, scorching hot August day, Jay and I drove through farmer’s fields to Dresden, a little town near London, Ontario, and got to see where hundreds of former slaves began their newfound life of freedom under the Hensons’ care.
One of the effects of slavery is that slaves are fully dependent on their masters, making it a real challenge to build a life within the context of freedom. Josiah Henson observed this struggle:
“The mere delight a 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…”
To help former slaves rebuild their lives, Henson, along with a group of abolitionists, purchased 200 acres and established a vocational school known as the British American Institute for Fugitive Slaves. They built a sawmill and a grist mill, and taught former slaves how to take care of themselves and how to avoid making poor decisions that would lead to exploitative contracts.
On the tour with us was a large group of black Canadians from Toronto, and one of the men leaned over during the presentation and whispered, “I had no idea how bad the slaves had it.” I was so grateful that this place had been preserved, so that we could all learn by standing on the very soil Henson and his fellow abolitionists had lived and served on.
Following our visit to the historical site, we went on a family camping trip on the shores of Lake Erie. This was the lake many slaves crossed to reach freedom. Josiah Henson described what that moment felt like for him:
“When I got on the Canada side, on the morning of the 28th of October, 1830, my first impulse was to throw myself on the ground, and giving way to the riotous exaltation of my feelings…I hugged and kissed my wife and children all round with a vivacity that made them laugh as well as myself.”
In a world where slavery still thrives, it’s important we keep telling the stories of those who have overcome exploitation and found freedom. Not only will it give us hope, but in reading their stories we can begin to identify the individuals whose character we wish to emulate, driving us to take brave action on behalf of those who long for reprieve.