Josiah Henson Park is a Montgomery County historical asset hidden in plain sight. Fortunately, occasions such as Black History Month shine a light on such treasures, sharing them in a way that combines learning with a celebration of the area’s rich cultural resources.
As part of a countywide series of Black History Month events, “A Walk in Father Henson’s Footsteps,” free guided tours of the North Bethesda park’s historical sites, will be offered from noon to 4 p.m. Feb. 25 and 26 (with the last tour leaving at 3 p.m. each day). Visitors are invited to bring their questions for Montgomery Parks’ Museum Manager Shirl Spicer and historical staff who will be available to discuss Henson Park and other significant county historical sites. In addition to hourly screenings of “The Search for Josiah Henson,” a PBS Time Team America documentary, “Lyrical Rhythms: The Sounds of Freedom,” a spoken word poetry event during which participants create and share their “own sounds of freedom,” will culminate the weekend from 3 to 4 p.m. Feb. 26.
Who is Josiah Henson?
Reverend Josiah Henson is best known for his 1849 autobiography, “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave,” which served as the inspiration for abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Josiah Henson Park, in North Bethesda, is the former plantation property where Henson was enslaved from 1795 to 1830. From there, he escaped to freedom in Canada via the Underground Railroad and later published his memoirs—a key source for Stowe’s acclaimed story.
“While here in the [U.S.], Josiah Henson isn’t well known,” said Spicer, “he is widely known throughout Great Britain and Canada” where the open-air museum and African American history center, Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site in Dresden, Ontario, includes his home. “People have forgotten that it was his life experiences that Harriett Beecher Stowe used to help shape her main character of the well-known novel,” she added.
Spicer initiated the Black History Month program in 2011 to bring awareness to the use of literature—historical text, narratives and poetry—as a means of “educating folks about history.” “We began it as a celebration of the African-American experience during Black History Month and it has, over the years, become at times a celebration of Reverend Henson and his varied life experiences,” she explained.
What’s in the Park?
The 1.43-acre Josiah Henson Park is part of the National Park Service’s (NPS) National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program. The park was formerly known as Riley Farm/Uncle Tom’s Cabin Special Park because it is comprised of two properties the County acquired from private citizens in 2006 and 2009.
The first parcel, 11420 Old Georgetown Road, consists of the historic Riley/Bolten House, an 1800-1815 wood frame, two-story house, and the log kitchen, an 1850 one-story wing. Both structures were remodeled in 1936 by White House architect Lorenzo Winslow. The property is protected under local preservation law; its Historic Site status precludes any exterior changes without review by the Historic Preservation Commission. The Riley/Bolten House is also listed on the NPS National Register of Historic Places. A small portion of the property is where Henson lived and worked as a slave.
A second parcel, at 11410 Old Georgetown Road, consisted of a house and garage that held no historical significance and, as such, were intentionally demolished in June 2011 to make room for a bus drop-off, small parking lot and visitor orientation building.
The Montgomery County Department of Parks intends to convert the site and its historic buildings to a public historic/cultural park and museum in honor of Henson. The department’s staff is working with a team of consulting architects, engineers and interpretive program planners to develop, preserve, rehabilitate, and restore the park site and buildings.
Beneath the Surface
Ongoing archaeological excavations seek to unearth clues about exactly where Henson lived on the site. His quarters—which he described in his autobiography as a “log hut,” and part of a “village of log huts”—were located somewhere on the plantation grounds.
The slave-owning family lived in the Riley House. “That house features an attached log kitchen that has been dated by tree-ring analysis to 1850. Given that 1850 is after Henson’s 1830 escape to Canada, but before emancipation in Maryland, it is assumed that enslaved people, such as a cook, would have worked in the kitchen and that the cook’s family slept in a loft above the kitchen, which was known to exist, but is now removed,” according to the Montgomery Parks website.
This log kitchen is the site of an interior archaeological dig where three previous earthen floors were discovered. This indicates the presence of an earlier kitchen that stood on the very same spot as the current kitchen. It is probable, therefore, that the kitchen space represents where Henson recalled being forced to sleep upon his return to the plantation from Kentucky in 1828.
“The archaeological work at Henson is focused at uncovering the lives of the enslaved who once lived and worked on the Riley plantation,” said Cassandra Michaud, Montgomery Parks’ Senior History Specialist. “So far, work in the log kitchen and in the backyard of the Riley house has demonstrated that the 19th century is still on the property, although buried. We have uncovered thousands of artifacts dating to Henson’s time on the plantation that illustrate what life would have been like for him and other slaves, ranging from dishes and food remains to buttons and horse and farm hardware.”
Of note (although not associated with Black History Month) is “Searching for Josiah Henson,” a new field trip experience for fourth- through eighth-graders. This hands-on activity includes exploring current archaeological excavations, understanding soil colors and textures, mending pottery, learning about archaeological field and lab work, and mapping a mock excavation unit. Under the supervision of archaeologists, students learn the role of archaeologists and how the artifacts aid in interpreting the history of the site.
Parking for Josiah Henson Park,11420 Old Georgetown Road, North Bethesda, is available around the corner at the Shriver Aquatic Center, 5900 Executive Blvd. In the event of severe weather, call 301-650-4373 to confirm the park will be open. Admission to the park is free and open to the public, but the park is open only during a limited number of dates each season, including Black History Month.