Were MoCo and MD State government officials and the press duped in 2006 about the real “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”?

International media attention — from CNN, NPR, the New York Times, the Times of London, and others — was focused on Montgomery County, Maryland, in the winter of 2005-2006 as the county bought what it thought was “the real Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Five years and nearly $2 million later, the Montgomery County Planning Board is holding a public hearing Thursday October 28 at 7:00 PM to take testimony on proposed Parks Department plans to develop the property formerly known as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and to formally change the park’s name by removing the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” label.

The Montgomery County Parks Department’s efforts to rebrand the property formerly known as Uncle Tom’s Cabin/Riley Farm have been documented in local newspapers and in other blogs over the past several months.

After my August 2010 blog post, the Washington Post reported on the disconnect between local oral tradition and verifiable historical fact. Interviews conducted by the Post reporter and comments posted at my original blog post by former Montgomery County Planning Department staff who worked in the historic preservation office raise troubling questions about what historic preservationists were telling appointed and elected officials and the press about the property in the weeks leading up to its purchase for $1 million.

Former Montgomery County historic preservation office supervisor Gwen Wright told the Washington Post, “People were romanticizing things a bit too much.” Wright added, “When I gave tours or tried to talk to people about the site, I think I did my best to try to explain it wasn’t a slave cabin.”[1]

Susan Soderberg, who was the Montgomery County historic preservation office’s outreach and education coordinator, told the Post that an “accurate” history of the property was readily available prior to the purchase.

Soderberg’s interview with the Post and comments she wrote after my August 2010 blog post, contradict the early 2006 Montgomery County historic preservation office newsletter that she wrote and edited. The newsletter included a photo of the log building long described as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” with the caption, “MNCPPC-owned cultural resources include the Riley House, recognized by historians as the real “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (emphasis added).[2]

Montgomery County Historic Preservation Office Spring 2006 newsletter cover.

I was serving on the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission when Montgomery County bought the property. In 2007 I became the HPC’s vice-chairman and shortly after the dendrochronology (tree ring dating) studies were completed another former Montgomery County historic preservation office employee, who remains an active historic preservation advocate, confided to me that the tests dated the cabin to c. 1850, long after Henson had left the plantation. This person asked me to keep the information to myself until the county developed a way to break the news to the public and to elected officials.

Despite claims by Soderberg, Wright, and others who were working for Montgomery County’s Planning Department at the time — and those active in historic preservation in Montgomery County — that it was widely understood that Henson had not lived in the log building, none of the local, national, or international media organizations ever published a correction to any of the coverage of the 2006 purchase and no letters to the editor originating from Montgomery County employees or historic preservationists ever were published attempting to correct the misunderstanding.

Manipulating History

The property now known as the Josiah Henson Site is a relic: something old that invokes a wide array of human cognitive actions. Relics are tangible artifacts that mediate  between what is historical and what is memorial.[3]

David Lowenthal is a historian who has spent much of his career writing on the uses of the past in the present. He has written extensively on memory and the politics of heritage in articles and in books like The Past is a Foreign Country and The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. Lowenthal wrote, “The prime function of memory, then, is not to preserve the past but to adapt it so as to enrich and manipulate the present.”[4]

The American landscape is full of relics, real and spurious, onto which oral tradition has attached narratives — historical legends — about what makes a particular place like a log building associated with a famous ex-slave or a log building associated with an assassinated president who fought a war to free American slaves, historically significant.

These places include the many Colonial homes where George Washington slept and the cellars throughout the eastern United States that all served as stations along the underground railroad. Temple University historian Seth Bruggeman has written eloquently about this in Here, George Washington was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument.

If Montgomery County’s Parks and Planning Departments history staff knew that the log building at the Henson park property was a kitchen all along with no tangible ties to Josiah Henson, then why was the log building described by the Montgomery County Council in its 2005 resolution to buy the property as a “rare example of a perfectly preserved slave quarter”?

Montgomery County Council resolution authorizing the purchase of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Why did the Maryland State legislature authorize $100,000 to go towards the purchase of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in a bill known as the “Montgomery County — Uncle Tom’s Cabin Loan of 2006”?[5]

Maryland State Senate Bill 961: Creation of a State Debt -Montgomery County - Uncle Tom's Cabin.

According to a 2006 Maryland State Senate fact sheet, the bill was introduced to authorize “the creation of a State Debt to serve as a grant to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission for the planning and design of the historic preservation of and public access to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”[6] The Senate fact sheet further describes the property:

Henson specifically describes this kitchen wing and his experience of sleeping in this room in his memoirs. Many of his experiences of living as a slave on the Riley property are vividly depicted in his memoirs and are recreated in Stowe’s novel.[7]

Curiously, the authors of the Senate analysis authorizing the debt also wrote:

There has been tremendous interest in this historic resource generated by the recent public acquisition. Over the last month or two, the property has been featured on NPR, CNN, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, and Voice of America. It has been covered by multiple newspapers and television stations, and photos of it will be in the August issue of National Geographic magazine. There is a palpable desire on the part of many cultural institutions; governmental entities; and the lay public to open this building to the public as soon as possible.[8]

The public relations opportunities presented by the public acquisition of the property were not lost on the Maryland Senate. The tremendous amount of media coverage, which included articles in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Calcutta (India) Telegraph in addition to the coverage cited by the Maryland Senate, focused international attention on Montgomery County’s acquisition of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” not the Isaac Riley farmhouse or the later “Josiah Henson Site.” Names like the Riley Farmhouse and the Josiah Henson Site simply do not pack the same symbolic punch as a property called Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Headlines published at the time include the January 7, 2006, one in the London Sunday Times: $1 museum bid rescues Uncle Tom’s Cabin from developers. The Times went on to write, “The slave hovel that inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin is to be preserved as a museum.”

Uncle Tom's Coverage: Times of London Website screen capture.

NPR’s All  Things Considered ran a story on February 4, 2006, titled “A Visit to the ‘Real Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ .“

NPR All Things Considered screen capture.

It seems that at the time, in late 2005 and early 2006, the local media, as well as the international media all caught what Washington Post reporter Annys Shin dubbed “cabin fever.”

Rebranding the Park and Rewriting History

According to the Montgomery County Department of Parks, the county hired a bevy of experts — historians, architectural historians, and archaeologists — “to systematically and comprehensively document the property’s origins, physical materials, and archaeological yield.”[9] The report prepared by Philadelphia-based consultant John Milner and Associates was posted at the Josiah Henson park Website.

With the creation of this expensive study ($107,660.00), Montgomery County  had an opportunity to take advantage of all of its consultants’ collective expertise to analyze how oral tradition, belief, memory, and material culture combined to create the illusion that the Montgomery County log building was in fact the prototype for Stowe’s novel.

So did they seize this opportunity? No.

The 168-page report, which includes discussions of the property’s ownership history, a general historic context, timelines, and detailed descriptions of the architecture and landscape in addition to recommendations for future interpretations at the site, does little to turn a critical eye on the property’s most contested attribute: its historical identity.

Montgomery County’s Parks Department consultants in their discussion of the property’s history described a 1930s restoration project undertaken at the site and they quoted from 1939 newspaper coverage: “The 1939 article also makes one of the earliest documented references to the properties [sic] association with ‘Uncle Tom’.”[10]

In the “Suggested areas for future research” section that immediately followed the passage on the 1939 renovations  in the historic context, the consultants failed to suggest research into the role oral tradition and folklore played throughout the property’s history. Leaving out the entire discipline of folklore, the authors who were drawn strictly from a mainstream history background should have drawn on the widely hailed work by Lowenthal and others in heritage, memory, and historic places.

The Montgomery County Parks Department attempted to rebut the Post’s article in a statement posted at the Josiah Henson park Website.  The Parks Department staff has invited the public to the October 28 Planning Board hearing to “testify on the recommendations made in the Staff Draft and the staff recommendation to change the name of the park from the Uncle Tom’s Cabin Special Park to the Josiah Henson Special Park.”

Related Pages and Sites

© 2010 David S. Rotenstein


[1] Annys Shin, “Confusion over history of Md. cabin museum,” The Washington Post, October 4, 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/03/AR2010100304685.html.

[2] “Comprehensive Strategic Plan Approved for Cultural Resources on Parkland,” The Preservationist (Newsletter of the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission), 2006, 1, http://www.montgomeryplanning.org/historic/newsletters/Spring06Preservationist.pdf.

[3] David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country (Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 186-187.

[4] Ibid., 210.

[5] Susan Lee et al., Creation of a State Debt -Montgomery County – Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 2006, http://mlis.state.md.us/2006rs/billfile/hb0544.htm; Ida Ruben, Creation of a State Debt -Montgomery County – Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 2006, http://mlis.state.md.us/2006rs/billfile/sb0961.htm.

[6] Ida Ruben, Creation of a State Debt -Montgomery County – Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Montgomery Parks: Heritage Sites – Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” n.d., http://www.montgomeryparks.org/PPSD/Cultural_Resources_Stewardship/heritage/uncle_toms_cabin.shtm.

[10] John Milner Associates, Inc., Historic Structure Report for The Riley House/Josiah Henson Site, June 2008, 15, http://www.montgomeryparks.org/PPSD/Cultural_Resources_Stewardship/crs_docs/henson_historic_structures_report.shtm.

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