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Uncle Tom’s Cabin – A glimpse of the face of slavery to freedom

“I’ll use my freedom well.”

Brief but a powerful sentence. Fearless and hopeful.

Those were the words of Josiah Henson as a response to the parting words of a ship captain who helped him escaped from a life of atrocious slavery in the United States back in the days when dark-skinned were nothing but slaves. As soon as he landed on Canadian soil, he threw himself to the ground and rolled in excitement. He was free.

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Where is Uncle Tom’s Cabin?

Most of us might think that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is in Mississippi or in Georgia or somewhere in the United States where black history is concentrated in these areas. But hey, no! It’s here in Ontario, Canada!

When Josiah arrived and settled in a town in Dresden, Ontario, he established a school (British American Institute) to educate and train former slaves to start a new life where they had the freedom to live without orders from their masters.

Read: Windsor and Detroit: A Tale of Two Cities

Uncle Tom's Cabin - where Josiah Henson used to live

Uncle Tom’s Cabin – where Josiah Henson used to live

Uncle Tom’s Cabin – the novel

Before Martin Luther King, there was Josiah Henson, a former slave whose life was the basis of the character of Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” This anti-slavery book became the 2nd best-selling book in the 19th century, next to The Bible. The same book helped the abolitionist cause that led to the freedom of thousands of slaves in America. Uncle Tom is an epithet to someone who is submissive (a slave) in serving his white master who bought him for a few bucks.

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Uncle Tom’s kitchen

What’s inside Uncle Tom’s Cabin?

Well, if you take it literally, there’s nothing much left in Uncle Tom’s (aka Josiah Henson) house — but rusted kitchen utensils, wooden furniture and some other stuff that give you a glimpse of a life in the past. The cabin / house is well-preserved and it’s still intact in its original form. Simple, yet, if the walls could talk, they must have interesting stories to tell.

Life-size wax figure of Josiah Henson and his wife.

Life-size wax figure of Josiah Henson and his wife.

Visitors are allowed to go inside and touch some of those rusted objects. The second floor, however, is closed to tourists for it might collapse. It’s a surreal experience for me—knowing that a part of literature comes alive right there in front and around me. My mind was literally racing back to my university literature classes. It felt like I was inside the book itself.

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The Tour

When visiting, ask for a tour schedule/guide at the reception. Start with learning about the life of Josiah Henson by watching a 15-minute video that summarizes his life as a slave, as a preacher and as a leader.

The kitchen table inside Uncle Tom's Cabin

The kitchen table inside Uncle Tom’s Cabin

The Underground Railroad Museum

It’s heartbreaking and chilling to remember how slaves were treated back then. If these hurtful tools could talk, you’d cry in the first sentence they’d say. The Underground Railroad Museum has some of the objects that were used by Uncle Tom himself. If you got time to spare, reading all those posters and billboards there are worth it. It’s like watching a historical movie—-with the absence of special effects to exaggerate it. Though small and quiet dark, the museum is an educational gem where one learns the heartbreaking history of the slaves, their sacrifices, their worth, their survival and their yearning for freedom. If I were a Principal in a high school, visiting Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a must before the students graduate. It will surely make a difference.

Can you survive for 26 hours in this crate?

Can you survive for 26 hours in this crate?

Henry “Box” Brown was a slave who decided to escape from slavery by mailing himself to freedom. He went to a carpenter and asked him to build a box exactly this size (above pic) and lined inside of it with soft fabric. Henry escaped from Richmond, Virginia to Philadelphia by steamboat, train and coach–and was in the box for 26 hours! He only had three things with him while inside the box: water, food, and a tool that looks like a screw driver so he could drill a hole for air to breath. When the box was opened in Philadelphia, Henry jumped out of the box and surprised everyone with his greeting, “How do you do, gentlemen?” From there, he traveled to Boston where he became active in the Underground Railroad.

Note: You are free to open the box and if you are brave enough, you can also hop on it, close the lid and experience what Henry Brown did. If not for 26 hours, 26 seconds would do.

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Maison Harris House. The house is tall and thin–to keep the heat inside in winter.

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Inside Maison Harris House. The first floor is where the kitchen and the living room are. The second floor is their common area to sleep for all members of the family. Privacy was non-existent.

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The Church exterior.

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An old heater inside the church.

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I’m not sure what this is. I missed what our tour guide said. Tour guides should give at least 2 minutes every after their historical speech before moving on to the next. We didn’t go there to just listen but also see, touch and take photos. You can’t tell us to go back later for the picture. We take photos because we just learned its historical importance and we want to capture the object or something so we could share it to the ones who will listen to our stories after the trip. Two minutes. No more. No less.

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Remnants of an old sawmill.

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Some of the furniture inside the church. Our tour guide played a casette recorder to let us listen one of the hymns sang in this house of worship.

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Uncle Tom’s burial gravestone. He wasn’t actually buried under this massive headstone but somewhere at the back. Queen Victoria commissioned the crown at the top of his gravestone to honor his contribution to the freedom of the slaves.

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Headstone of the rest of the family and community members.

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Original chairs but not of Uncle Tom’s. They’re made by the students of their school.

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Uncle Tom was a very religious man. This is his original pulpit which he used to preach at his church.

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The original signboard outside the church is well-preserved at the Underground Railroad Museum.

Did Uncle Tom really use his freedom well?

How did I get there? I joined a short weekend trip via www.shorttrips.ca.

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4 Responses to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin – A glimpse of the face of slavery to freedom”

  1. Sally
    July 19, 2013 at 9:58 AM #

    Wow! That’s an amazing experience! I looked at the route via google map, and, indeed, it’s far from TO. I dont have a car either. Joining a tour group makes sense to me. I looked at the website of the group you had but they don’t anymore have another tour for this summer! 🙁

    • TheSojourner
      July 19, 2013 at 10:53 AM #

      Sally,
      I think the Windsor-Pelee Island Trip I took is only in summer. I’m not sure though but they have other trips which you’ll surely enjoy.

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