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A Legacy of Power

How a family, a community and the world are forever changed by Josiah Henson’s untold story

Article by Lauri Gross

Photography by Tony Ventouris & Ed Wondoloski

Originally published in Potomac Lifestyle

A new museum in North Bethesda, with its restored home and log kitchen and a new visitor center, sits quietly on 3.34 acres. But the site loudly proclaims a story that is both unbelievable and frighteningly real.  

The story begins in pre-Civil War America, which resembled the 2020 version of the nation in at least one way: Writers of inconvenient truths were likely to be labeled tellers of fake news.

Such was the fate of author Harriet Beecher Stowe when her 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” depicted the real-life horrors of slavery, southern slaveowners cried “fake news,” (or some 1852 version of those words) and tried to convince others that life in the American south was actually just fine.

Of course, we now know that Beecher Stowe – whose novel many believe helped to propel the Civil War - faithfully described the truth about slavery. But few know the Uncle Tom character was largely inspired by the very real Josiah Henson, an enslaved person from Montgomery County who eventually earned his freedom in Canada and helped more than 100 others escape to freedom as a conductor of the Underground Railroad.

Later, a stage version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” depicted the Uncle Tom character as a sell-out, subservient to whites. Unfortunately, that version is what stuck in the public’s mind and it’s why the term Uncle Tom is considered derogatory today.

Now, visitors to the new Josiah Henson Museum and Park can learn the truth.

The restored home on the museum site was that of Isaac Riley, the man who enslaved Josiah Henson there from 1795-1830. Known locally as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Riley-Bolten house has been open to visitors since 2006 but, following a multi-year expansion, renovation and restoration, the site now stands as the Josiah Henson Museum and Park. It tells the story of Josiah, who, in addition to his role as an abolitionist, became an influential author, Methodist minister, public speaker, and a world-renowned figure. His 1849 autobiography inspired Beecher Stowe’s landmark novel.  

Mia M. Lewis is Josiah Henson’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Granddaughter. Thanks to her great uncle serving as a family historian, aided by her grandmother and others, Mia has always known of her family’s rich history and connection to Josiah Henson.

However, she says, “We weren’t aware the Riley House and some of its property were still standing until we were contacted by Montgomery Parks in 2016.” Since then, Mia and her family have been involved with the project. Mia believes the Museum will help visitors get acquainted with Josiah Henson as a man of tremendous strength, intelligence, loyalty, and faith.

She hopes that “individuals will walk away understanding that the real Uncle Tom was a hero, a family man, a man who risked his life on countless occasions by helping others escape slavery; a man to be proud of. This platform will teach upcoming generations of his life and the many contributions he made,” she says.

Local Legacy Churches:

Heritage Montgomery researched and documented the history and legacy of many of the county’s historic African American churches, some of which are included in the following list. For historical information and visitor's guides, check out the Community Cornerstones brochure at

Agape A.M.E. Church 7700 Brink Road Gaithersburg, Md.; 301-924-8640

Asbury United Methodist Church 17540 Black Rock Road, Germantown, Md.; 301-540-2347

Community of Faith United Methodist Church 22420 Frederick Road, Clarksburg, Md.; 301-972-5520

Elijah United Methodist Church 18401 Beallsville Road Poolesville, Md.; cemetery only

Emory Grove United Methodist Church 8200 Emory Grove Road, Gaithersburg, Md.; 301-963-3434,

Jerusalem Baptist Church 19215 Jerusalem Road, Poolesville, Md.; 301-349-5864;

Jerusalem-Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church 21 Wood Lane, Rockville, Md.; 301-424-0464;

Mount Calvary Baptist Church 608 North Horners Lane Rockville, Md.; 301-424-8717; 

Mt. Calvary AUMP Church 16400 Batson Road, Spencerville, Md.; 301-421-9560, 

Mt. Zion United Methodist Church 21000 Beallsville Road (Rt. 109), Dickerson, Md.; 301-916-3613; 

Mt. Zion United Methodist Church 5000 Brookeville Road, Brookeville, Md.; 301-401-0870,

Pleasant Grove Christian Community Church 11225 Mountain View Road, Damascus, Md.; 301-253-0107;

Pleasant View Historical Site 11810 Darnestown Road, Gaithersburg, Md.; 301-926-1798

Poplar Grove Baptist Church 14625 Jones Lane, Darnestown, Md.; 301-330-5054; 

Scotland A.M.E. Zion Church 10902 Seven Locks Road, Potomac, Md.; 301-299-5226

Sharp Street United Methodist Church 1310 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Sandy Spring, Md.;  301-774-7047; 

St. Mark’s United Methodist Church 19620 White Ground Road, Boyds, Md.; 301-916-6028; 

St. Paul Community Church 14730 Sugarland Lane, Poolesville, Md.; 301-717-9304;  

Warren United Methodist Church 22625 White’s Ferry Road, Dickerson, Md.; 301-972-7263; 

Washington Zion Presbyterian Church 14655 Good Hope Road, Silver Spring, Md.

Waves of Glory Worship Center 4021 Muncaster Mill Road, Rockville, Md.; 301-924-5153

  • Mia M. Lewis, Josiah Henson’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Granddaughter participated in the unveiling of the new museum to the public.
  • Site of the restored Riley-Bolten home and log kitchen on what was Isaac Riley's plantation.
  • Mia M. Lewis, Josiah Henson’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Granddaughter
  • Mia Lewis, descendant of Josiah Henson, with the document proclaiming Sept. as International Underground Railroad Month.
  • This Gaithersburg site includes this church, a school and graveyard maintained by the Pleasant View Historical Assoc. Photo Courtesy of Heritage Montgomery.
  • St. Paul Community Church in Poolesville.  Photo courtesy of Heritage Montgomery.
  • Warren United Methodist Church in Dickerson. Photo courtesy of Heritage Montgomery.
  • Jerusalem - Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church. Photo courtesy of Heritage Montgomery.
  • The new visitor center at the Josiah Henson Museum and Visitor Center. Photo courtesy of Montgomery Parks, M-NCPPC.
  • Presenting the Proclamation
  • The visitor center features dynamic exhibits that illuminate African American history in Montgomery County.   Photo courtesy of Montgomery Parks, M-NCPPC.