Jared Brock Spotlights Life of Abolitionist Josiah Henson

Josiah Henson

Written by Jordan Corey

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe was the best-selling novel of the 19th century, but few know the story of Josiah Henson, the real-life man who inspired much of the striking anti-slave narrative. On Nov. 14, Eastern Connecticut State University hosted Jared Brock, who has memorialized Henson in film and text.

The event included a partial screening of Brock’s documentary “Josiah,” which accompanies his book “The Road to Dawn: Josiah Henson and the Story That Sparked the Civil War.” A Q&A session concluded the event.

“Josiah” details the compelling history of Henson, who was named by Stowe as one of her sources for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” as he overcame the many plights of slavery to gain his freedom. In the documentary, Henson’s autobiography is used in collaboration with commentary from historical professionals and his living relatives to capture his journey.

Early on it is revealed that a young Henson watched his mother get sexually assaulted by their overseer, followed by his father attempting to defend her and being severely punished for hitting a white man — he was whipped a hundred times and his ear was nailed to a tree, only to be cut off. Henson notes that his father drastically changed, which caused him to be sold and sent away. “This is Josiah Henson’s first memory,” says Brock in the film.

As time progressed for Henson, he witnessed countless traumatizing incidents, from the separation of families during slave auctions to the detrimental

Jared Brock

impact of falling ill. When he became sick, he was traded for horseshoes to a man named Isaac Riley, which reunited him with his mother. Eventually, Henson grew strong and worked his way up to overseer.

He also worked as Riley’s “market man,” dealing with business affairs though he could not read or write at the time. He was known for being deeply compassionate and utilized his position to care for the other slaves.  As Riley’s right hand, however, he took much physical abuse, one day being attacked so badly that he was out of work for months and unable to lift his arms above his head again.

Riley sued Henson’s assailants for “destruction of property” and lost the case because Henson was not allowed to testify. When Riley fell into extreme debt, Henson was forced to travel to Kentucky and transfer all the slaves to Riley’s brother, Amos. From then on, Henson regretted not freeing everybody when he had the opportunity as they passed through Cincinnati.

Once Henson’s mother died on Isaac Riley’s farm, everything that connected him to that place was gone. Determined and put together in appearance, he spoke diligently as a preacher as he traveled between the brothers’ farms to earn enough money to buy his freedom. When he finally became only $100 shy of the price set, Amos Riley increased the amount.

After nearly being driven to murder as a means of escaping such bleak conditions, Henson committed to fleeing with his wife and children. He would have rather died as a slave than as a killer. The trip was dangerous, with an underlying risk of being caught at any moment. The family trekked through woods for weeks and received occasional help from strangers, such as a group of Native Americans who had never seen black people before.

Henson found himself working on a boat, where he managed to secure a ride to Buffalo, NY — his passageway to Canada. When the ship captain left Henson and his family, he asked him, “Are you going to be a good man?” to which he replied, “I will use my freedom well.”

He became free on Oct. 28, 1830. During the rest of his lifetime, Henson rescued 118 enslaved people from the United States, won a medal at the first World’s Fair in London, was invited to Windsor Castle by Queen Victoria and helped start a freeman settlement called Dawn, one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad.

Brock explained that he did extensive research on Henson, visiting his cabin and the Riley plantation in Kentucky, which is still owned by the same descendants. He mentioned that the family had not let anyone visit the premises in 30 years. “They gave me two hours, and I used every second of it.”

He called attention to the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Henson, two key Civil War figures who were “intricately connected” without ever having met. He went on to share that in telling Henson’s story, he had two goals. “I want to reintroduce society to Josiah Henson, and I want to have a conversation about the term ‘Uncle Tom.’”

After the wide popularity of Stowe’s novel, the term was adapted in racist fashions on various platforms, as seen by blackface-centric theater productions, for instance. Brock aims to “redeem” the Uncle Tom character and emphasize Stowe’s initial talking point: the stark inhumanity of slavery and those who support it. That said, Brock has largely been driven by Josiah Henson’s mission for good. “I encourage you to remember to use your freedom well,” he concluded.

Jared Brock has appeared on CBS, CBC and the 700 Club, and has published on Huffington Post, Writer’s Digest, Esquire, Relevant Magazine, Smithsonian.com and Today.com. In addition to directing “Josiah,” he is the director of “Over 18” and “Red Light Green Light.”