At a time when Owensboro, like communities across America, is engaged in dialogue about its history and public symbols, I believe one often-overlooked former resident belongs squarely in the discussion.
Josiah Henson is among the most historically significant figures to ever call Daviess County home, and as a native Owensboroan, I would love to see a fitting commemoration of his remarkable life and story — to inspire local citizens and visitors alike.
Born in Maryland, Henson (1789-1883) was an African-American slave who lived on the Amos Riley plantation near Maceo from 1825 to 1830. Although his time in the community was brief, he left an enduring legacy that has valuable lessons to teach us, even two centuries later.
During his years in Daviess County, Henson served as a trusted field hand, rising to the rank of plantation overseer. He was even able to become an ordained African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) minister and travel the Ohio Valley as an itinerant preacher.
Diligently saving money from his work as a minister, Henson attempted to purchase his family’s freedom, only to have his master renege on a promised deal and threaten to sell him. In September 1830, he slipped across the Ohio River under cover of darkness with his wife and four young children, setting out on a perilous 600-mile, two-month journey to freedom in Canada.
Once in Ontario, Henson founded the self-sufficient “Dawn Settlement” near Dresden, teaching freedmen farming and trade skills to help them integrate into society. He also repeatedly risked his life, returning to the U.S. to personally guide more than 100 slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad.
Historians widely believe that Henson’s extraordinary story provided the inspiration for the title character of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s landmark 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the bestselling 19th-century work of fiction that thrust the great national debate over slavery into the arena of popular culture.
To counter pro-slavery critics who questioned the veracity of her novel, Stowe published The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin the following year, featuring a bevy of well-documented sources, including Henson’s biography. Library of Congress circulation records show that President Abraham Lincoln borrowed this book from June 16-July 29, 1862 — during the exact time period he was drafting the Emancipation Proclamation.
Over the years, there have been sporadic local attempts to recognize Henson, such as the 1993 RiverPark Center staging of playwright W.L. Mundell’s Josiah! (focused on Henson’s time in western Kentucky). But today, aside from a couple of small, weathered road signs and an inconspicuous historical marker along U.S. Highway 60 East, there is scant evidence to remind area residents and visitors of the impactful historical figure who once called Daviess County home.
Erecting a prominent memorial statue in downtown Owensboro, incorporating Henson’s name into the U.S. Highway 231 Natcher Bridge (that spans the Ohio River very near where he and his family made their bold midnight crossing in 1830), and/or creating a permanent interpretive exhibit at the Owensboro Museum of Science and History would be exciting ways to honor and showcase this extraordinary American life.
Two other communities central to Henson’s story already feature permanent memorials to him. Dresden, Ontario’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site is home to a museum and interpretive center; and Montgomery County, Maryland is currently building a museum and education center to complement their existing Josiah Henson Park.
Let’s join them in celebrating and preserving this remarkable American voice for generations to come. Let’s give Daviess Countians and visitors alike an opportunity to contemplate the life of this momentous historical figure near the shores of the mighty Ohio River — the very waters Henson braved to save his family, and to ultimately inspire a nation to live up to its founding promises.
Woody Maglinger III is an Owensboro native and Kentucky historian. He is author of “Dark Days in the Ohio Valley: Three Western Kentucky Lynchings, 1884-1911” and has taught history courses at Kentucky Wesleyan College and Western Kentucky University-Owensboro. Maglinger currently resides in Frankfort with his wife, Leigh Ann, and their two children, Hope and Will. He serves as a senior account director at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville.