Inducted: October 28, 1992
Raised in a slave tradition that denied him any education, his experiences inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write "Uncle Tom's Cabin," a book that became one of the strongest weapons used by U.S. abolitionists. In his years of enslavement, brutal men broke his body, but they could not break his unconquerable spirit.
Mr. Henson was born July 15, 1789, on the Maryland plantation of Dr. Josiah McPherson, who gave him his name and taught him to speak well. His natural ability led to his advancement to a foreman's job, but this did not save him from the indignities and cruelties that were the lot of slaves. He was permanently crippled when he was beaten over the shoulders with a fence rail, so that he was unable to raise his hands over his head.
It was at a camp meeting that slaves were forbidden to attend that Mr. Henson was converted. He was later ordained as a minister at a Quarterly Conference of the Methodist Church. This, and a fraudulent agreement for his manumission to which the illiterate Henson had unwittingly affixed his mark inspired him to look north to freedom.
Mr. Henson was 41 when he finally reached Canada, an experience that filled him with an exaltation incomprehensible to those born free. Unfortunately, he found that all Canadians did not welcome the former slaves, and he decided that what was needed was a community where they could settle, and learn the trades that would make them independent.
Money was raised in England and the U.S., and a convention of his people in June, 1838, in London decided to set up the British and American Institute.
The Rev. Hiram Wilson and Henry Selby, with Henson, were given the responsibility of choosing a site, and 200 acres were purchased at $4 an acre in Dawn Township. Henson, who was appointed the Manager, bought additional acreage.
A schoolhouse, workshop, boarding home and market farms were laid out, and in 1842, the school opened. The influx of escaped slaves from the U.S., continuing until the American Civil War, put heavy strains on the settlement and its facilities.
Mr. Henson could see the possibilities of a lumber industry and sawmill, and on a visit to England to win additional support and money, he took samples of the fine finished hardwood that had been produced by Institute workers. A pamphlet issued by the Anti-Slavery Society of Boston in 1849 recognized this leader for what he was: "Josiah Henson; a warrior against injustice, father of a rejected race."
Henson's lack of business sophistication may have been an element in the economic problems that beset the British and American Institute; and Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation eliminated the need for an Underground Railroad. Some of the former slaves returned to the United States.
Henson returned to England for a last visit, and was received at a special audience at Windsor Castle by Queen Victoria. They exchanged autographed pictures. He preached until he was 93. His funeral procession, with 52 teams and wagons, was the longest ever witnessed in that area.
Mr. Henson never lost his vision. He wrote, "The sufferings of the past are now like a dream and the enduring lessons left behind make me praise God that my soul has been tempered by Him in so fiery a furnace and under such heavy blows."
In his lifetime, he had achieved miracles. As "The Voice of the Fugitive" said of him, "The executive talent which could collect, organize and control a colony of runaway slaves and shape out of such hopeless material a virtuous and self-respecting community can hardly be inferior to that which fills with the highest credit the first places of our nation."