Clarence Page Reflects on the Power of Uncle Tom’s Cabin

June 29, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, an encore look at the story of the real “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It comes from essayist Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune. The eighteenth-century structure opened its doors to the public last weekend.

CLARENCE PAGE, Chicago Tribune: You can just barely see it tucked away behind the trees along a busy highway near the shopping malls in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside Washington. On Martin Luther King’s birthday, the state of Maryland purchased that historic house because of the little log cabin attached to it.

Almost two centuries ago, that cabin was the home of a slave named Josiah Henson before he escaped to Canada. Harriet Beecher Stowe used his memoir as a basis for her classic American novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Like a prairie fire, Stowe’s tragic depiction of slave life, published in 1852, inflamed abolitionist sentiments in the years before the Civil War. Only the Bible sold more copies. When Abraham Lincoln met her in the 1860s, he is reported to have said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

As a child, I was impressed by “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for its power of the printed word. But, among my fellow black Americans, I soon learned Uncle Tom had become a paradox, transformed in less than a century from a hero into an insult.

His name has become an epithet to describe subservient Negroes, too eager to please the master. Stowe’s noble characters were badly recreated over the years as ugly minstrel-show stereotypes of dark-skinned mammies and wild-haired pickaninnies.

That’s sadly ironic, since the Tom in Stowe’s book is not a traitor. He is a man of deep Christian faith who dies a martyr’s death, refusing to reveal the escape routes of two slave women who fled their cruel overseer. With his dying breath, Tom proves himself to be the moral superior of his masters by forgiving those who fatally abused him.

Ironically, it was Tom’s generosity of spirit and Christian forgiveness that moves his new owner, George Shelby, to release all of his slaves after Tom’s death. “Look to Uncle Tom’s cabin,” he tells them, “so they can remember Tom’s sacrifice and lead a pious Christian life, just as Tom did.”

Today in Maryland, we can look at “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and also remember the real man who inspired him. Josiah Henson defied stereotypes. He escaped to Canada, opened a school for other former slaves and published an autobiography in 1849 that became a bestseller.

Years later, a prosperous Henson returned to visit his former owners here in Maryland. “Sy, you’re a gentleman now,” his former owner’s wife said with surprise, to which Henson replied, “Ma’am, I always was a gentleman.” History lives with the Hensons.

Years later, Josiah’s great-grand nephew, Matthew Henson, would accompany Admiral Robert E. Peary on his 1909 expedition to the North Pole. Their story is an American story, an example of how black American history is the history of America.

Here in Maryland today, Harriet Beecher Stowe might again tell us to look to Uncle Tom’s cabin, not just as a symbol of slavery, but a symbol of strength and freedom, a relic out of our past to help us face our future.

I’m Clarence Page.