National award for Henson Museum

The new moniker for the site formerly known as Uncle Tom's Cabin is a winner.

So much so, the renaming of the site as the Josiah Henson Museum of African-Canadian History and the adjacent Freedom Road outside Dresden has garnered a Governor's Award from the National Trust for Canada.

Site manager Steve Cook said the recognition is "very encouraging.

"It's inspiring to us," Cook explained. "This change has forced us to dig deeper into Josiah's story. It's a reminder to me how important Josiah Henson is to Canadian history."

Cook, who has been telling the story of the multi-faceted former slave and Underground Railroad conductor for the past 35 years, said the change will take time.

"It's still new for many people," he said of the name change which took place in July. "We understand it's going to take a couple of years."

And while the change has been resisted by some, Cook said everyone understands after it's explained that the term “Uncle Tom” became a racial slur after discriminatory minstrel shows became popular in the United States.

It didn't start out that way. The anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was based in part on Josiah Henson's life. It became an international bestseller and is said to have fuelled the abolitionist movement leading up to the American Civil War.

Although there have been a few hate motivated crimes, including the defacing of Dresden's new Pride sidewalk in October and the stealing of a Black Lives Matter flag last year, Cook said he remains hopeful.

In the past month, the entire student body of Lambton Kent Composite School came to the site to learn about Josiah Henson and his mark on history, which is a win in Cook’s mind.

He and his colleague Jackie Bernard, as well as Samantha Meredith, executive director/curator of the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society & Black Mecca Museum, made a presentation to all 246 students.

"We shared past, present and future Black history with the students," Cook acknowledged. "They were a rapt audience."

Pam Wright, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chatham Voice