BETHESDA - Josiah Henson, the inspiration for George Harris in Harriet Beecher Stover’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabinet,” will be honored with a museum here called the Josiah Henson Park.
Last week, Ellen Emmett of Montgomery Parks, Larissa Hallgren, exhibit designer for Experience Design, and architect Robert Kinsley laid out preliminary plans at a meeting at Tilden Middle School.
Preliminary designs for the 1.5 acre, 3,000 sq. ft facility include a 2200 sq. ft. welcome center with a gathering space, retail shop, restrooms, lunch area and 60-seat multimedia theater, all of which may be used as event space. It is estimated to hold 100 people, who will be separated into 15 person groups as each room holds 15-17 people. The museum will be housed on the former Riley Plantation.
From 1795-1830, Henson lived on the Issac Riley Plantation, at 11420 Old Georgetown Rd. in modern day Bethesda, as a slave before escaping to Canada. His 1849 autobiography, “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself” is believed to have inspired the Beecher’s novel.
Tom Kehhuas, director of Montgomery County Historical Society said he is happy Henson’s contribution to history will be honored. “He was a very important figure, not only locally but nationally. He was the model for the fictional Uncle Tom and there is no Uncle Tom’s Cabin without him. Without that there is no bringing the enslaved to national prominence and without that novel, there may not have been a civil war. This story needs to be told,” said Tom Kehhuas, director of Montgomery County Historical Society.
Montgomery Parks Project manager Eileen Emmett said the museum is still in its early planning stages and nothing will be finalized until mid-year.
Planning is 30 percent complete, with final plans scheduled to be submitted to the Montgomery County Planning Board in June. The completed plans will account for five parking spaces, two handicaps, one staff, and two visitors. The museum estimates that the majority of visitors will arrive by bus.
If the plans are approved, the next steps will be a public hearing, a county council hearing, and then getting the museum funded for the 2015-2020 fiscal years. The National Park Service and the county’s Historic Preservation Committee are asking for a $100,000 federal grant.
The museum is predicted to open in 2018.
In celebration of black history month, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and Montgomery Parks are currently offering guided tours at the site. The tours are offered every Saturday in February between 12:00 pm and 4:00 pm.