Growing up about 30 minutes from Dresden, Ont., visiting the Uncle Tom’s Cabin historic site in high school, and reading a long-lost copy of The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, I thought I had a good grasp on the story of this former slave and, as the subtitle states, “the story that sparked the Civil War.”
Then I read The Road to Dawn by Jared A. Brock where I discovered there was more to Henson’s story than I’d grew up believing.
Brock’s interest in Henson began when he bought his wife a book she said she’d wanted to read: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
“She read it, and was moved by it, and I decided to do a little more research…I was surprised to discover that her novel was based on the life of a real man named Josiah Henson,” writes Brock, who made his own visit to Henson’s Canadian home. He also began extensively researching Henson’s life. (A side note: Brock and co-author Aaron Alford shared a precis of Henson’s story in the book Bearded Gospel Men.)
I discovered there was more to Josiah Henson’s story than I grew up believing
Brock starts with the well-known story of Henson, who grew up as a slave in Maryland and, due to a natural intelligence, became a trusted overseer for his master, Isaac Riley. This trust led to Henson being chosen to lead a group of slaves to the plantation of Riley’s brother in Kentucky.Yet, for all this trust and goodwill, Henson is mistreated and cheated. When he finds out his new master plans sell Henson’s family separately, he decides to escape to Canada and freedom.
Throughout Henson’s story, Brock doesn’t shy away from describing the brutality of slavery and notes how even those who showed kindness to their slaves still found their compassion restricted by an oppressive and pervasive system. After Henson arrives in Canada, Brock shows how Henson’s trusting nature is frequently taken advantage of as he tries to establish a self-supporting community for escaped slaves.
This is where I discovered more about Henson’s life. At the Dawn settlement, the community near Dresden he founded (and is buried), Henson endures the self-serving machinations of (sometimes) well-meaning abolitionists and an onslaught of attacks by fellow escapees who disagreed with his methods. Brock shows that, along with his tendency to be to trusting, much of Henson’s problems came from his lack of a formal education and financial acumen, which weren’t uncommon for slaves. What I found surprising were the unfounded accusations that Henson was profiting from both the Dawn settlement and the separate British-American Institute (BAI) training school.
While packed with facts about Henson, slavery, pre-Civil War American society, pre- and post-Confederation Canada, The Road to Dawn reads like a novel, not history book. The style keeps the reader engaged and wanting more, and his footnotes provide a good trail of books and documents about these topics for further reading. I only wish, especially when trying to follow the trail of the trials around Dawn and the BAI, there was a list of key players available for reference.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin sounded a call against slavery that led to the Civil War. In The Road to Dawn, Brock provides a clarion call to remedy the effects of racism and slavery that exist 135 years after Henson’s death. He calls for, among a list of items, a change in name of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic site to the Josiah Henson National Historic Site, a National Underground Railway Museum and financial reparations by Canada, Britain and the United States.
One point Brock made, “we have yet to see a person of color adorn our currency,” has been fulfilled with the 2018 release of the $10 bill featuring Nova Scotia civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond. Perhaps there still is hope on The Road to Dawn.