Josiah Henson Museum and Park, which tells the inspirational life story of the man who was born into slavery and defied the odds to become an influential author, abolitionist, minister, public speaker and world-renowned figure, will be dedicated on Friday, April 23, in North Bethesda. The museum and park are located at 11410 Old Georgetown Rd.—the site of the former plantation where Henson was enslaved from 1795-1830.
The museum will be open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays through Sundays, Tickets are required for admission and must be purchased online.
Creation of the new park and museum was overseen by Montgomery Parks, which is part of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. The museum and park is part of the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program.
The project was 15 years in the making. Montgomery Parks purchased the property in 2006 from a private owner.
One of Henson’s many accomplishments was his 1849 autobiography, “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada.” That book inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s landmark anti-slavery novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
The Josiah Henson Museum and Park includes:
- The Riley/Bolten House which dates to 1800-1815 and its attached log kitchen that dates to 1850. The historic structures have been rehabilitated and now feature traditional and multimedia exhibits, incorporating archaeological artifacts found onsite.
- A newly constructed 3,000-square-foot visitor center that includes an auditorium with orientation film, gift shop, restrooms and observation terrace.
- A four-acre landscaped park with an accessible walking path featuring outdoor interpretive exhibits and archaeological features.
“Our family is absolutely thrilled with the completion of the museum,” said Mia M. Lewis, a descendent of Josiah Henson. “My hope is that people will come to understand who the Rev. Josiah Henson truly was—a man of tremendous strength, intelligence, loyalty and of great faith.”
Josiah Henson was born into slavery in Charles County on June 15, 1789. After being sold separately from his mother and siblings at the auction block, he was eventually traded to Isaac Riley and worked alongside his mother on the Riley plantation from 1795-1830. The plantation was located along what is now Old Georgetown Road in North Bethesda. Through hard work and acumen, Henson rose to become the plantation superintendent. He also found Christianity after attending a sermon given by an itinerant preacher at the nearby Newport Mill.
Henson became an ordained Methodist minister and after suffering the violence and cruelty of four decades of chattel slavery. In 1830, he escaped to Canada on foot with his wife and four children. There he helped established Dawn Settlement, a community inhabited by those formerly enslaved in the United States, continued his work in the Methodist ministry and became an international speaker and abolitionist. Henson continued the fight for freedom, leading 118 people from enslavement in the United States to freedom in Canada as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
In 1849, Henson published his autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada. It vividly depicted his experience of enslaved life in Maryland and Kentucky. The book inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s groundbreaking fictional novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which broke all sales records of the time and sold more than half a million copies by 1857. Uncle Tom’s Cabin inspired the abolitionist movement in the mid-19th Century and many believe the novel helped propel the country into civil war. Henson’s later work as a renowned speaker and author garnered him invitations to the White House and Windsor Castle in London.
In January 2006, Montgomery Parks acquired the property located at 11420 Old Georgetown Rd. from private ownership. The property included the Riley/Bolten House that dates to 1800-1815, and its attached log kitchen which dates to 1850. Modifications were made to the tidewater plantation house in the 1930s by White House architect Lorenzo Winslow in the Colonial Revival Style.
Four adjoining parcels of land were acquired in subsequent years to create a nearly four-acre park. The park first opened to the public in 2006. Parks staff conducted archaeological excavations for the past 10 years that have yielded more than 50,000 artifacts. In addition to excavations, Parks staff hosted school programs based on archaeology and led historic interpretive public programs about Henson’s life and the African-American experience. In 2011, Parks staff wrote and submitted the nomination to list the Riley/Bolten House on the National Register of Historic Places for its historic significance. The historic house has been listed on the Montgomery County Master Plan for Historic Preservation since 1979.
In June 2013, the Montgomery County Planning Board approved the Josiah Henson Park Facility Plan. The facility plan called for rehabilitating the Riley/Bolten House and converting it into a public museum, as well as building a new 3,000-square-foot visitor center and making the site more accessible to visitors.
Funding for the project included Montgomery County funds, State of Maryland funds, Federal funds and private donations. The total project cost was $8.8 million dollars. Construction began in 2018 and was completed in February 2021.
In accordance with COVID-19 health and safety guidelines, admission is limited to advance reserved timeslots and masks are required. Visitor parking is available at Wall Local Park at 5900 Executive Blvd., in North Bethesda. A limited number of accessible parking spots are on-site for permit holders at 11410 Old Georgetown Rd.