Josiah Henson Museum receives national recognition for name change

A local museum has been recognized nationally for its recent name change.

The Ontario Heritage Trust was awarded a 2022 Governors’ Award from the National Trust for Canada, a national charity that empowers communities to save and renew heritage places.

The Trust received the accolade for renaming the Josiah Henson Museum of African-Canadian History in Dresden, formally known as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The Ontario Heritage Trust unveiled the official rebranding of the historical site in July. In addition, the name of the road the historic site is on was also changed from Uncle Tom’s Road to Freedom Road earlier this year.

“We’re really proud of this award,” museum site manager Steven Cook said. “It’s really a reflection of all the hard work and the thought that we put into the renaming of the site. It’s bringing about a lot of change already, which I’m really, really happy to see.”

Cook said a big challenge has been separating fact from fiction.

“That’s been our biggest challenge, is separating fact from fiction,” said Cook. “Josiah Henson and Uncle Tom – they are not one and the same person.”

He added the way Uncle Tom is used is harmful, especially today.

“It’s insulting. We can do better than that in honouring Josiah Henson’s legacy,” said Cook. “When you think about it, Henson travelled the Underground Railroad, bravely risking his freedom to deliver over 100 enslaved people to freedom, long before the publication of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

The new name came out of Ontario Heritage Trust’s review of its properties and programs through an anti-racist and inclusive lens. The change was meant to remove negative connotations and bring more attention to Henson’s story.

Cook said the renaming was the museum’s chance to educate people on both the history of slavery and all of the accomplishments of Henson as an author, an educator and an abolitionist.

“That’s a real person who accomplished something here in Dresden that had an impact nationally and internationally, and that’s the man we should be celebrating,” he said.

Bird Bouchard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Ridgetown Independent News