Josiah Henson’s ‘inspiring’ story brought to the world by Jared Brock

February 15, 2019   ·   0 Comments

By Constance Scrafield

The call for the telephone interview with the Citizen came from Wales, where Jared Brock is staying, working on his next book. For the purposes of this discussion, we were focused on the story of Josiah Henson, about whom Mr. Brock has made a documentary and written a book over a few years of research and discovery.

 He said, relative to being in the U.K., “Josiah has interesting connection with the U.K.   In the first very world fair, he won a prize for black walnut lumber. Where Josiah, was living in Canada, was renting land to work, farmers were cutting down black walnut, clearing them to farm. Josiah had access to the community lumber mill and he told the farmers, ‘don’t cut them.’ He took the trunks of the BlackWalnut, and milled. So, he took boards of it to the World Fair in .the UK.

The story of Josiah Henson came about “in an interesting way. I was in a book store in Florida and saw Uncle Tom’s Cabin. My wife wanted to read it. I  did more research, based on the real man and realized I didn’t know, the book was based on Josiah. 

“His house was less than two hours away, so, we went to his house, which is a museum. I was really moved by his story and decided, I have to make a documentary. I have made others. I went to New Orleans;  went on plantations owned privately. And one of the owners gave me a tour and told me more about slavery in the south.”

Josiah was born in Maryland to an owner, a cruel man who whipped his father and sent Josiah away. When the new owner bought the property, Josiah’s mother begged for his return, to which the owner agreed, on the condition he would work the fields.

 His history relates that he rose to supervisor of his master’s farm.

Mr. Brock tells the story that “One of the overseers hated him because he took a white man’s job. When the time came that Josiah wanted to buy his own freedom, he was cheated and what remained of the price to freedom, though he had paid $350, increased tenfold, which he would never have been able to pay.

“So, he took his wife and family and they ran away. They ended up walking 600 miles from Kentucky to Canada.”

Mr. Brock’s connection to the tale are his documentary and the biography he has produced. Said he, “I’ve written a couple of books but this is my first foray in writing a biography. Josiah overcame incredible obstacles but he was forgiving.” 

What gives Mr. Brock a catch in his throat, “For me, when he gets to Niagara, there was a Scottish man who asked him, ‘Will you be a good man?’ and Josiah tells him, ‘ I will use my freedom well. ‘”

In spite of the dangers, were he caught, Josiah Henson “went back to America and rescued 118 people. He did so much more than the average. He had escaped from slavery before the underground railway, helped by some First Nations people. It was here he  realized there were so many people needing help.”

Mr. Brock declared, “I actually met a man descended from a family that Josiah saved.”

In those days, Mr. Brock made the point that “slavery was such a big thing that it was taxed. There census records, bills of sale. Some were destroyed  but many were intact so it is possible to track people for their history.”

In 1834, Josiah Henson, with help, was able to purchase 200 acres in Dawn Township, in Kent County, where his vision of establishing a self-sustaining black community could be managed and which was called Dawn Settlement. Dawn Settlement flourished by selling BlackWalnut lumber to the USA and Britain.

Over a number of years, he wrote three autobiographies, taking different slants on his life, the first of which was published in 1849 of his life a slave, come to Canada. Nine years later, there was a further book with more stories. Twenty years later, he wrote about being the model for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This was for many years, a claim to fame that he used  to forward his work as an abolitionist. However, it also worked against him as the work was interpreted as racist.

“Just about every thing of Josiah’s life is still around,” Mr. Brock said. “to prove the veracity of a lot of work. My book is being distributed all over the country; it came out May 15. The film is showing on TVO on February 17.”

For some decades, Josiah Henson was not in history’s eye along with so many other, well-known abolitionists. In due course, his bravery and accolades were laid open and he was the first black man to be a Canadian postage stamp.

As Mr. Brock wrote in The Times, “His accolades certainly warranted the inclusion. He rescued 118 enslaved people. He won a medal at the first World’s Fair in London. Queen Victoria invited him to Windsor Castle. Lord Grey offered him a job. Rutherford B. Hayes entertained him at the White House. He helped start a freeman settlement in Canada, called Dawn, which was known as one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad. He was one of the inspirations for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the novel that Abraham Lincoln jokingly blamed for sparking the Civil War. Before all this, Josiah Henson was brutally enslaved for more than 40 years.”

Mr. Brock’s documentary is titled Redeem Uncle Tom and his biography of Josiah Henson is The Road to Dawn.

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