Saving the Real 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'

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Officials of Maryland's Montgomery County and a preservation group have decided to purchase the home of the slave who inspired the main character in Uncle Tom's Cabin. The sale of the cabin prompted commentator Clarence Page to revisit the tale that still elicits a strong response from readers.

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In January, Montgomery County, Maryland, and a preservation group decided to purchase the home of the real-life slave who inspired the main character in the book Uncle Tom's Cabin. The sale of the cabin prompted commentator Clarence Page to revisit the tale that still elicits a strong response from readers more than 100 years after it was published.

CLARENCE PAGE reporting: Since truthful fiction often emerges from actual facts, I was not terribly surprised to learn that Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, was partly based on the memoir of a real slave. But I was surprised to learn that the real slave named Josiah Henson lived in a log cabin attached to a big house in what is now a dense, upscale section of Bethesda, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. Maryland's Parks and Planning Commission recently purchased the property to preserve it as a historic and educational site.

Unlike Tom, Josiah Henson escaped to Canada, opened a school and published a best-selling autobiography in 1849 that led to his meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, a preacher's daughter and a staunch abolitionist. Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared three years later. Only the bible sold more copies.

As an African-American descendent of slaves, the news moved me to revisit Uncle Tom, one of our most vastly misunderstood icons. Transformed in less than a century from a hero to an insult, his name has become an epithet to describe subservient Negroes, traitors to black pride. But those who actually read Stowe's book know the truth is more complicated than that. Tom is not a traitor. He's a man of great honor who dies a martyr's death because he refuses to inform on two escaped slave women to 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. It is this generosity of spirit, true to the core of Christian teachings, that moves his owner to release all of his slaves, reminding them to remember Tom's sacrifice every time they look at his cabin.

Thanks to Maryland, we have a real-life cabin to look at, reminding us, as Stowe's book once did, of what many would like to deny, the long-lasting damage slavery caused to the reputed land of the free.

But, the same heroic capacity for forgiveness, that evoked great sympathy for Tom from white readers, stirred a bracing resentment from African Americans. Instead of forgiving his white masters, many thought Tom should have led a violent uprising against them, like Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and more than 200 other slave rebellions did.

Yet, even today there's a living subversive power to Tom's passive resistance. He turned the other cheek, like Thoreau or Gandhi or Martin Luther King, and stirred white America to do the right thing by its fellow human beings. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe, so you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war. In fact, her book offered America a choice, America chose confrontation over cooperation. We still face that choice.

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GORDON: Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Chicago Tribune.

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GORDON: This is NPR News.

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