An Exhibition Celebrating Black Activist Josiah Henson in Nottingham
As part of the Journey to Justice Exhibition in Nottingham, we are celebrating the lives of social reformer Samuel Morley and African American activist Josiah Henson. This is a unique opportunity to tell the story of an interracial alliance where both men fought for social justice and equality throughout their careers. In the 1850s and the 1870s when Henson visited Britain, he stayed with Morley in Nottingham who raised money and organized lectures for the formerly enslaved Henson. The exhibition we have created will house original books by Henson (including his narrative and a children’s book), a newspaper print describing his impact on Britain, and rare items belonging to Samuel Morley.
From enduring and resisting the cruelties of a Maryland plantation to meeting Queen Victoria at Windsor Palace, Josiah Henson possessed deep determination, perseverance and a desire to constantly resist racism and oppression.
Josiah Henson (1789-1883) was born enslaved in Maryland. He was often severely punished and witnessed extreme acts of violence – his father was brutally whipped over once hundred times and his ear was nailed to a whipping post, in a scene which would dramatically affect his young son.
Henson saved money from odd jobs he performed whilst being loaned to plantations, and attempted to buy his freedom. His slaveholder, however, tricked him and when Henson presented the agreed amount the slaveholder increased the price twofold. He then resolved to escape to Canada, succeeding in 1830, where he established a school for labourers and wrote an autobiography of his life.
Henson was believed to be the inspiration behind the character of ‘Uncle Tom’ in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and attracted great celebrity in America and in Britain because of it. He travelled to Britain several times, and exhibited some of his carpentry in the internationally famous Great Exhibition in 1851 (and was the only black person to do so). He was also invited to meet Queen Victoria in 1877. Henson died shortly afterwards in 1883.
Henson’s Travels in Britain
Although he had visited Britain twice before, Josiah Henson’s third visit in 1876 sparked international fanfare and celebrity. In order to alleviate debt on his property, Henson sought out reformers and old abolitionist friends to help him raise money to overcome these financial difficulties. As a result of his famous association with Stowe’s novel, he received over two thousand invitations to speak. He was a powerful orator, and newspaper correspondents praised his impressive stage presence. Most of the press paragraphs discussing him were reprinted almost verbatim from London to Liverpool, describing how Henson (the “original” Uncle Tom) “pictured [slavery] in a very effective way.” In Sheffield for example, Henson gave two lectures in one day to thrilled audiences, and crowds of people turned up an hour and a half early. At another meeting, hundreds of people were turned away as there was not even standing room left to hear him speak, and his revised edition of his autobiography sold hundreds of copies. According to his white benefactor and editor John Lobb, Henson addressed over 500,000 people all over the country in less than a year.
So great was Henson’s fame and connection with the Stowe’s novel that two statues of his likeness were constructed in 1877, in two very different venues. The sculptor W. Charles May created a bust of Henson for the Royal Academy Exhibition, and Madame Tussaud’s in London constructed a wax figure of him, although no image of the statue survives today. His statue was placed in the so-called ‘Large Room’ of the exhibition where figures of Martin Luther, Joan of Arc, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and William Shakespeare were placed. Henson does not mention either in his autobiography, but we can assume the sculptors at both venues used his photograph to make his statue. Henson’s wax figure remained at Tussaud’s for at least three years, a significant feat considering the exhibition immediately removed statues that presented little interest to the public.
Morley and Henson Connection: Nottingham
Henson and Morley’s connected story represents the campaign for freedom, equality and human rights in Nottingham, and beyond.
Morley was an abolitionist and funded Henson’s book, written about his experience in slavery in 1849. This edition included a foreword by Morley, who again provided support for Henson during his visit to Nottingham in the winter of 1876. It is most likely Morley organised a lecture for Henson in December and allowed him to stay at his residence.
During this Nottingham meeting, Henson was nicknamed ‘Uncle Tom’ and spoke to a crowded audience in Exeter Hall. He spoke of his conversion to Christianity and the heroic actions of his father, who was tortured after rescuing Henson’s mother from rape. Much to the delight of the audience, he took off his coat to reveal his scarred back as evidence of the cruelty of American slavery. The meeting was so successful that the chairman asked the audience to raise their hands if Henson should address another meeting the following week: the response was a resounding yes.
Henson’s Relationship with ‘Uncle Tom’
In order to achieve success on the British stage, Henson exploited his association with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. His books were marketed as the story of “Uncle Tom” and hundreds of articles across the country addressed him as ‘Tom’ rather than Josiah Henson. This connection – and ultimately racist phrase – began to grate on Henson, and in several meetings across the country denounced he was Uncle Tom. In one meeting in Glasgow, he said:
“Now allow me to say that my name is not Tom, and never was Tom, and that I do not want to have any other name inserted in the newspapers for me than my own. My name is Josiah Henson, always was, and always will be. I never change my colours.”
Whilst Henson’s efforts would never be enough to change Victorian racism, he made an extraordinary impact on Nottingham and British society in general. He forced Britons to confront – however briefly – the dangers of depicting horrors only African Americans understood. Despite being in his 80s at this point, Henson was still capable of motivating others to seek social justice and inspire willingness to stand up for oneself or for others. Further proof of this is offered in the introduction of a children’s book dedicated to Henson’s life in 1877, as he symbolized the concepts of morality and action: “let no one, however lowly, after reading this narrative, sit down and say ‘I can do nothing.” Henson’s story clearly inspired activism, and this spirit speaks to the very heart of Journey to Justice and to each of us as citizens. Henson and Morley’s connected story represents the campaign for freedom, equality and human rights in Nottingham, and beyond.