Five miles from Potomac Village, the historic “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” site has potential to debunk plenty of myth and misconception about Maryland’s legacy of slavery. It runs deeper than many may assume, especially those who expect that real-life models for the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel were in the Deep South.
Montgomery County (including Potomac) had slaveholding plantations prior to the Civil War. Josiah Henson, the model figure for Uncle Tom, lived on one of them. And it turns out that Henson was anything but an “Uncle Tom,” as the term has come to mean.
By unanimous vote, the Montgomery County Planning Board last month approved the $1 million purchase of the one-acre property at 11420 Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda. The three-bedroom 18th-century house and attached cabin entered the market late last year, after owner Hildegarde Mallet-Prevost died in September at age 100.
The structures are the only remnant of Isaac and Matilda Riley’s plantation, which once encompassed 3,500 acres. The main house was renovated in 1919 by Lorenzo Winslow, the White House architect. The log cabin was the kitchen, was once separate from the main house. Josiah Henson’s memoirs make clear that he slept there at least some of the time.
SINCE THE CABIN was sold to the public, media outlets from as far away as France and Japan have come to cover the transaction. “I’ve been very impressed and a little overwhelmed by the interest people have shown in the place,” said Gwen Wright, a historian with Park and Planning.
Greg Mallet-Prevost, Hildegarde Mallet-Prevost’s son, credits Realtor Betty Spano for ensuring that the home was sold to the public trust. Spano was the daughter of one of the elder Mallet-Prevosts’ closest friends. “She got involved [and] got directly in everyone’s face,” Greg Mallet-Prevost said. “That was very cool that she had the interest in it, and I don’t think it was financial.”
In December, Spano, a longtime friend of the Mallet-Prevost family, incorrectly heard that the property was under contract. “I almost died,” said Spano, who contacted Park and Planning and County Executive Doug Duncan, hoping to convince them of the historic significance of the site and the importance of moving quickly to acquire it. “Wouldn’t it be great if someone could buy this, and keep it for history, for the ages?” Spano said. “I was just committed to getting this thing to work.”
JOSIAH HENSON’S autobiography “The Life of Josiah Henson” was published in 1849, and it garnered the attention of abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. The two met in Andover, Mass., when Henson was on a speaking tour about slavery throughout New England. After Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published, she wrote a documentary and explanatory “The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in 1853, which described Henson as the model for Uncle Tom.
Henson was a slave on the Riley Plantation, and lived at least some of the time in the cabin — in his second memoir, he described his return to the cabin/kitchen after returning from Kentucky, when he’d passed through the free state of Ohio. “After putting my horse in the stable I retired to the kitchen, where my master told me I was to sleep for the night,” Henson wrote. “Oh, how different from my accommodations in the free States, for the last three months, was that crowded room, with its earth-floor, its filth and stench! I looked around me with a sensation of disgust.”
The cabin is now attached to the main house, but Greg Mallet-Prevost, son of the home’s most recent owners, believes that it was detached in Josiah Henson’s time. The cabin served as a kitchen, and between its earthen floor that turned muddy on wet nights and the slaughter of chickens and pigs being prepared for cooking, plantation owners would have wanted to keep the kitchen separate.
Josiah Henson said that the threat of being sold to the Deep South was “the greatest of all terrors to the Maryland slave.” Slavery was abhorrent enough in Maryland. Henson’s earliest memory was, as a child in Charles County, seeing his father return with a bloody face and bloody back from 100 whip-lashings he received for defending his wife from the assault of their white overseer. After the lashings, the blacksmith who whipped Henson’s father tacked his right ear to the post, then severed it. Henson’s father was later sold to the Deep South, and neither Henson nor his mother ever heard about his fate again.
JIM HENSON IS Josiah Henson’s great-great-great grandnephew. An attorney now living in Savage, Md., Jim Henson never knew about his relationship to Josiah Henson until 1987, when he attended a re-interment for Arctic explorer Matthew Henson, at Arlington National Cemetery. (Matthew Henson, an African-American, went largely unrecognized during his lifetime for his role in helping Robert Peary reach the North Pole in 1909.)
A relative had researched the family tree and informed Jim Henson of the relation. Since learning of his relationship to his uncle Josiah Henson, Jim Henson has traveled to Owensburg, Ky., and to Ontario, Canada, to visit other sites where Josiah Henson lived. He also speaks to area schools about Josiah Henson, and keeps an especially busy schedule during Black History Month in February. “With me, this is a labor of love,” Jim Henson said. “He was amazing in more ways than I can imagine. … At 41 he couldn’t read or write, but he had a superior mind.”
Greg Mallet-Prevost said that Josiah Henson’s memoirs are as powerful as those of Frederick Douglass. “They’re really bigger than life — they’re not normal human beings by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “There was something within them that was much greater.”
Jim Henson chuckles as he recounts how Isaac Riley would send Josiah Henson to Georgetown to sell the farm’s produce — Josiah Henson returned each day with the money and gave it to Riley. “When he gave his word,” Jim Henson said, “that was the end. … That meant something to him.”
For similar reasons, Jim Henson and Mallet-Provost agree, Josiah Henson opted not to escape with his family, even as they passed through the free state of Ohio en route to Kentucky. Very few readers today would fault Josiah Henson if he’d broken his world to Riley to secure his own freedom — “It’s something like expediency, or something like situational ethics,” Jim Henson said — but these were different times.
“If you view him in light of the Civil War era,” Greg Mallet-Provost said, he’s fairly in tune with the way people acted.” Mallet-Provost likened it to a Civil War custom in which Confederate soldiers would sometimes allow Union prisoners of war to leave confinement and return home upon a promise not to fight again.
In Kentucky, Henson became a Methodist preacher. His Christian faith is fundamental to his thought, writing and actions. With his wife and four children, Henson fled to Ontario, Canada, in 1830. There, he founded a school for former slaves, and assisted other fugitive slaves in their flight for freedom on the Underground Railroad. He met Queen Victoria in England in 1851.
THE MALLET-PREVOSTS purchased the home in 1962, well aware of its historic significance, Greg Mallet-Provost said. Their son Greg Mallet-Provost was a Georgetown University undergraduate at the time, and he lived there for two years, just as thrilled about the history as his parents.
Historically speaking, Park and Planning has acquired a home that is in fantastic shape, Greg Mallet-Prevost said. The main home has a dirt cellar, supported by birch joists. “Very little has been damaged,” Greg Mallet-Prevost said. “It’s pretty dramatic, if you have the sense of the way old houses were built.”
He has no regrets about Park and Planning’s acquisition of the house; quite the opposite. “It’s just a great thing to have that thing be in the public trust,” he said. “My parents would have loved that. … It has a history independent of my parents.”
AT THIS TIME, Park and Planning has not determined how the estate will be put to interpretative use. Wright said they will assemble a steering committee, and she has already asked Jim Henson to be part of it. In the meantime, Wright stresses that the house is not open to the public, and she asks that people not visit the site until it formally opens.
The cabin will require work if the aim is to restore it to its 19th-century condition. The original fireplace survives, and dominates the inside. Some renovations were necessary to make it livable for Greg Mallet-Prevost and his wife, though — the ceiling is vaulted where the eves would have been, there are windows, and the earth floor of Josiah Henson’s time is two feet below a pine hardwood floor.
Many media reports on the home described it as a “secret” of Washington-area history, but for as long as the Mallet-Prevosts lived there, curious onlookers were a frequent occurrence. Their numbers would spike following reports on the home’s history in the news media. Visitors were welcome on the outside to photograph the house and the cabin, Greg Mallet-Prevost said, but the family wanted to be left in peace on the inside of the home.
Jim Henson was one of the exceptions. He first went to the Mallet-Prevost home about 15 years ago, soon after he’d learned about his relationship, and got to tour the house long before Park and Planning ever came on the scene. Jim Henson, who will move to Alexandria, Va., later this year, will have the opportunity to participate in the planning for future use of the house. “It could be put to a number of good uses,” Jim Henson said. “I would really like more people to get a chance to know about the man.”
Wright agreed that the site’s history will be enriching for everybody, and said, “As we interpret the site, I hope it’s going to be food for thought on issues, not just slavery, but on … issues that affect all of us.”