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New name unveiled for Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Dresden, Ont.

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Turning the page on Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Dresden, Ont. Saturday, the Ontario Heritage Trust announced a new name for the historic site in a special Emancipation Day ceremony.

The site will now be known as the Josiah Henson Museum of African-Canadian History, named for its founder and already the key figure in many of the centre’s existing teachings and museum exhibits.

“We're trying to ensure that the heritage that we represent on behalf of the province and on behalf of the people of Ontario, is authentic and honest and true,” says Beth Hanna, the CEO of Ontario Heritage Trust. “It's part of a larger discussion about how we tell the stories of Ontario's past and whose heritage we're portraying.

“Whose stories are we telling, whose heritage are we actually protecting? And what's missing in that dialogue?” Hanna adds.

Henson founded the Dawn Settlement in 1841 about a decade after escaping slavery in Kentucky, fleeing to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

His journey served as the inspiration for the main character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

“The man who got to be known as Uncle Tom, the real man, Josiah Henson was born in Maryland. He did escape from Kentucky, and he lived here, in the Josiah Henson housemate,” says site manager, Steven Cook.

Henson established 300 acres of land and personally travelled back and forth through the Underground Railroad to free more than 100 others.

At its peak, the Dawn Settlement is said to have been home to 500 black settlers.

“He started a safe haven for them here in Dresden, a school and a settlement that helped them to better themselves, get an education because he knew education really was the key to their success,” Cook says.

Henson died and was buried on this land in 1883, but various land-owners preserved Henson’s legacy to this day.

Five generations of Henson’s family were on hand for Saturday’s re-naming ceremony and celebration of Emancipation Day.

“To have their presence consistently in the work that we're doing is incredibly meaningful to us,” said Hanna. “And it validates and it supports and encourages us in the work we're trying to do.”

According to Cook, the future is bright for the newly named museum, to not only keep the focus on the Methodist preacher, but also the central role he played in shaping African-Canadian history in Canada.

“The actual history from the 1800s and the life that Josiah Henson led, that's what we focus on,” says Cook. “We're not changing history. We're just telling it and keeping it in context.” 

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