A Historic Gem In Bethesda’s Backyard

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Montgomery Parks hopes one day Josiah Henson Park will include a visitor center, replica slave quarters and eight-foot-tall book with Henson quotes.

For now, the 2-acre property at 11420 Old Georgetown Road consists of an 18th century kitchen structure and a number of archaeological dig sites open for tours a few times a year.

On Saturdays throughout February, Parks is providing free guided tours of the site. On Saturday, Feb. 22, the tours will culminate in a spoken word poetry event where Henson — the slave who escaped to Canada and became a key part of the abolitionist movement — once lived on a plantation.

Lisa MacLeman, in the Parks Cultural Resources Stewardship Section, led the tours on Saturday, first through the rebuilt Riley House, then to the 1850’s era wood structure that was for some time known as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

The park is opened for limited spots through the year, including during Black History Month. School groups and others can request tours at other times. MacLeman said it’s becoming more common for tour groups to pair a visit to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in D.C. with a stop at the park.

Henson’s autobiography was the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s landmark “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the widely distributed novel that made the case for abolitionism in the U.S.

Since Henson wrote about his time on the land as a slave, the idea that the wood structure with the chimney was the actual cabin became local legend.

Archaeologist Mike Robinson said researchers found out the structure was actually a kitchen and was built in the 1850’s, after Henson escaped to Canada in 1830. The slave quarters and many of the structures Henson would have inhabited or worked in are gone, as much of the original farm property has been subdivided and built into a residential neighborhood.

But Parks hopes a nearly $6 million capital project, added to this year’s Capital Budget recommendations by County Executive Isiah Leggett, would help illustrate that history and the history of slavery in Montgomery County.

The bulk of the funding would come in 2018 and 2019 for site improvements and utility work. Montgomery Parks hopes that construction would be moved up a year as it strives to raise $2 million as part of a fundraising campaign for displays in the museum.

The county hired a Boston-based museum exhibit company to create designs.

The museum would start with a new welcome center building that would house a gathering space, retail shop, restrooms, lunch area and 60-seat multimedia theater that could be converted to host other events.

The theater would show a looping six- to eight-minute orientation video that would introduce Henson and his importance after fleeing for Canada.

The museum would also attempt to portray the challenges of escaping slavery, which many did at night and in poor weather conditions, on the series of outdoor paths that would lead from the welcome building to the cabin.

The cabin, which includes an area excavated by archaeologists from a PBS show, will serve as the culminating feature. It’s there where archaeologists found evidence of the kitchen and where Robinson believes another layer below could be more finds from Henson’s time on the land.

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