If you guessed Josiah Henson, you’re right. When the captain of the ship was delivering him to freedom, he said goodbye to Josiah and wished him well, saying, “Be a good fellow, won’t you?” Josiah replied, “I will use my freedom well.” And he certainly did.
See a little of his story below.
“I’ll Use My Freedom Well.”
These simple but profound words were spoken by a man affectionately referred to as Uncle Tom in the classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In real life, his name was Josiah Henson. Born into slavery, Josiah was the youngest of six siblings, each sold to a different owner. Josiah was so badly abused by his owner that he almost died.
All his life, Josiah yearned for freedom. When he finally made his daring escape, getting off the boat, he recalls in his autobiography of rolling in the sand, kissing the ground and dancing when he set foot on this new free land. In his farewell, the kind-hearted captain put his hand on his head and said, “Be a good fellow, won’t you?” Josiah replied, “Yes. I’ll use my freedom well.”
And Josiah did. In fact, he more than kept his word. He was a conductor of the Underground Railway, became a well-known abolitionist and started up a community in Upper Canada (Ontario). It was called The Dawn Settlement and served as refuge for slaves fleeing from the United States. To help these people rebuild their lives, he started a vocational school. Since he was an advocate for literacy, half the day was spent in regular schooling, and half was spent in learning trade skills such as chair construction and blacksmithing. Some worked at farming, while others worked at gristmills, sawmills and other local industries.
Josiah was often referred to as Reverend or Father as he became their spiritual leader as well. Although he had not been allowed to attend a church meeting until age eighteen, after hearing scripture read, he became a strong believer. (Throughout Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom finds solace in the scriptures even in the darkest times in his life.) Not surprisingly, the church was an important institution in the Black settlement.
The story of slavery is an incredibly sad one, but also one that demonstrates the strength of the human spirit to overcome the most horrific examples of human cruelty. Sadly, much of Europe’s success came at the price of the misery of many Africans. At the height of the slave trade, six hundred thousand Africans arrived in slave ships on the shores of the United States. The number reached four million by the time of the Civil War. These people, including children, were auctioned off like animals and were often treated no better than animals, the owners considering them as part of their livestock. They were used to work in the cotton and tobacco plantations as well as for domestic help. If bought by a kind owner, it was pure luck as many owners were savage and beat and whipped their slaves mercilessly. Children were separated from their mother, husbands from wives, and women had no power to protect themselves from an owner who forced himself on them. No wonder the slaves sang of a Promised Land!
Reverend Henson became an important and well-known Canadian after Harriet Beecher Stowe acknowledged his memoirs as a source for her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which depicts the evils of slavery. Stowe’s book sold over three hundred thousand copies the first year of print and was later printed in many different languages.
Recently I visited Uncle Tom’s Historic Site near the town of Dresden, Ontario. The museum is located on part of the original property bought by Josiah in 1841 and commemorates his life and slavery at that time in history. It is a good reminder for those of us who often take our freedom for granted to ask the question of ourselves, Do I Use My Freedom Well?
Did You Know?
The little Black lawn jockeys were once used to give a coded message to run-away slaves. If the lantern or flag remained in the outreached hand, it was a sign of a safe house. If the house was being watched, the lantern or flag would be removed.
About Slavery in Ontario
It is a common belief that in North America, slavery only existed in the United States, but it existed in Canada as well but on a much smaller scale. Many white Loyalists brought their slaves to Canada after the American Revolution. The Blacks that were in Canada already when Henson arrived were Black Loyalists who had fought for the British during the American Revolution, and African Americans from the war of 1812. Black refugees only started arriving in Ontario when Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe passed an act in 1793 stating among other things, that there would be no more slaves allowed in Ontario; therefore run-away slaves were free once they got to Ontario. In 1833, Britain abolished slavery throughout its empire including Canada.