Rev. Josiah Henson VIA LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

County Council President Hans Riemer and Catherine Leggett are teaming up to propose renaming the former Woodward High School after the Rev. Josiah Henson, who was enslaved on a plantation near the North Bethesda school.

Montgomery County Public Schools plans to overhaul and reopen the high school on Old Georgetown Road to relieve crowding in the Walter Johnson High School cluster and in the Downcounty Consortium. The school is currently accommodating students from Tilden Middle, whose building is being modernized. The Tilden project should be completed by 2019, and Woodward High is slated to reopen in 2022, the letter from Riemer and Leggett stated.

Henson is known for penning an autobiography after his escape to freedom and inspiring the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe, which helped turn the tide against slavery.

“Josiah Henson, by struggling for freedom and writing his story, which provided the inspiration for Stowe’s novel, played a crucial and very specific role in the story of how our country finally ended slavery,” Riemer and Leggett—who is married to County Executive Ike Leggett—wrote in a July 19 letter to the school board. “Reverend Henson has never received the recognition that he deserves. He is one of Montgomery County’s greatest unsung heroes.”

The school is currently named after Montgomery County Judge Charles W. Woodward, but Riemer and Leggett asked the school board to consider a change, especially given the site’s proximity to the farm where Henson spent part of his life.

The Riley plantation covered the land where the Luxmanor neighborhood and the office buildings on Executive Boulevard now sit, according to the letter. It also included what is now Josiah Henson Special Park, which is expanding as archaeologists try to locate the “log hut” that Henson described as his living quarters.

The slave-owning family’s house still stands on the park grounds, and the site will soon feature a visitor center and museum about Henson; Leggett chairs the campaign committee that has raised funds for these improvements.

“Josiah Henson’s work managing the business of the Riley farm or plantation included taking goods to market in Georgetown on Old Georgetown Road. As a result, he walked the ground in this area for many years, where both school properties, as well as Luxmanor [Elementary School], sit today,” the letter stated. “Naming a high school in his honor would serve to pay tribute to his achievements, reminding our community of our unique history and the role of African American leaders in our County since its earliest days.”

Riemer and Leggett also note that Henson was an educator, establishing a trade school in Canada after he escaped enslavement.

The letter concluded by inviting board members to an August screening of the film Josiah, about Henson’s life, at AFI Silver in Silver Spring.

School board President Michael Durso said he appreciated the suggestion, although he said it was a bit premature.

“I think it has some interest, especially in the location of where Woodward is now,” Durso said of the proposal to name the school in Henson’s honor.

The school has a process for deciding on school names and gathers input from community members before choosing one, he said. He said schools do sometimes receive new names at their reopening, mentioning Roscoe Nix Elementary and A. Mario Loiederman Middle as examples.

Riemer said he and Leggett brought forward their suggestion now because of the increased interest in Henson’s life, with the release of the Josiah documentary and a biography called The Road to Dawn.

“So there’s a lot happening now, and my recommendation here with Catherine Leggett is to put this name out there and to ensure that it’s considered in the process,” he said.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.