Excerpted from the biography of Josiah Henson
Nothing aroused greater fury within the slave community than the sexual abuse of slave women. Josiah Henson describes his father’s reaction to an overseer’s attempt to molest his mother.
Year 1877 I was born June 15th, 1789, in Charles County, Maryland, on a farm belonging to Mr. Francis Newman, about a mile from Port Tobacco. My mother was a slave of Dr. Josiah McPherson, but hired to the Mr. Newman to whom my father belonged. The only incident I can remembered which occurred while my mother continued on Mr. Newman’s farm, was the appearance one day of my father with his head bloody and his back lacerated. He was beside himself with mingled rage and suffering.
The explanation I picked up from the conversation of others only partially explained the matter to my mind; but as I grew older, I understood it all. It seemed the overseer had sent my mother away from the other field hands to a retired place, and after trying persuasion in vain, had resorted to force to accomplish a brutal purpose. Her screams aroused my father at his distant work, and running up, he found his wife struggling with the man.
Furious at the sight, he sprung upon him like a tiger. In a moment the overseer was down, and, mastered by rage, my father would have killed him but for the entreaties of my mother, and the overseer’s own promise that nothing should ever be said of the matter. The promise was kept- – like most promises of the cowardly and debased- – as long as the danger lasted. The laws of state states provide means and opportunities for revenge so ample, that miscreants like him never fail to improve them. “A nigger has struck a white man”; that is enough to set a whole county on fire; no question is asked about the provocation.
The authorities were soon in pursuit of my father. The fact of the sacrilegious act of lifting a hand against the sacred temple of a white man’s body…this was all it was necessary to establish. And the penalty followed: one hundred lashes on the bare back, and to have the right ear nailed to the whipping- post, and then severed from the body. For a time, my father kept out of the way, hiding in the woods, and at night venturing into some cabin in search of food. But at length the strict watch set baffled all his efforts. His supplies cut off, he was fairly starved out, and compelled by hunger to come back and give himself up. The day for the execution of the penalty was appointed.
The Negroes from the neighboring plantations were summoned, for their moral improvement, to witness the scene. A powerful blacksmith named Hewes laid on the stripes. Fifty were given, during which the cries of my father might be heard a mile, and then a pause ensued. True, he had struck a white man, but as valuable property he must not be damaged. Judicious men felt his pulse. Oh! he could stand the whole.
Again and again the thong fell on his lacerated back.
His cries grew fainter and fainter, till a feeble groan was the only response to his final blows. His head was then thrust against the post, and his right ear fastened to it with a tack; a swift pass of a knife, and the bleeding member was left sticking to the place. Then came a hurrah from the degraded crowd, and the exclamation, “That’s what he’s got for striking a white man.” A few said, “it’s a damned shame;” but the majority regarded it as but a proper tribute to their offended majesty….
Previous to this affair my father, from all I can learn, had been a good- humored and light- hearted man, the ringleader in all fun at corn- huskings and Christmas buffoonery. His banjo was the life of the farm, and all night long at a merry- making would he play on it while the other Negroes danced. But from this hour he became utterly changed. Sullen, morose, and dogged, nothing could be done with him. The milk of human kindness in his heart was turned to gall. He brooded over his wrongs. No fear or threats of being sold to the far south- – the greatest of all terrors to the Maryland slave- – would render him tractable. So off he was sent to Alabama. What was his fate neither my mother nor I have ever learned…
Who is Josiah Henson Josiah Henson was born a slave in Charles County, Maryland. Throughout his life, he saw the way masters and overseers treated slaves and he studied their reactions towards different types of behavior. By watching the actions of the other slaves, Henson soon learned that if he was loyal and provided diligent service to his master, he would not get into very much trouble and he might even become fairly successful. Henson followed his plan and became successful on the plantation where he lived.
He was an outstanding worker, supervisor, and in 1828, he became a preacher. He became a Methodist because he found out that Methodists did not promote slavery, and in fact spoke out against it. African in American Inc and Anglo-Saxon Methodists worshipped in churches together, until members of other Christian and Jewish sects started harassing the Methodists. Eventually Henson ran away to Canada to escape slavery. He supposedly became the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, Uncle Toms Cabin.
She started interviewing enslaved Africans in order to develop the background for the book she was writing. Fate brought her to Josiah Henson. Henson ended up being the main inspiration for the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book was an instant hit in the North. Copies were sold all over the world.
Henson went to England and lectured on his life as “Uncle Tom,” the slave. He published his autobiography, My life as Uncle Tom three times. “Father” Josiah Henson preached, lectured, and wrote until his death in 1883. Check out the Narrative here.