An estimated 30,000 Black refugees from slavery in the United States fled to Canada along the silent tracks of the Underground Railroad – a network of people who aided these refugees as they followed the North Star to freedom. One of these freedom seekers was abolitionist, preacher and author Josiah Henson.
After escaping to Upper Canada (now Ontario) from slavery in Maryland and Kentucky, Josiah Henson established himself as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, travelling the clandestine network of paths and safehouses in reverse. In his role as conductor, he rescued 118 enslaved people.
A strong proponent of education and self-reliance, Henson relocated to Dresden, Ontario in 1841 and co-founded the British American Institute of Science and Technology with Oberlin, Ohio missionary Hiram Wilson. The settlement – known as Dawn – developed around the school. Its residents farmed, attended the Institute and worked at sawmills, gristmills and other local industries. Some returned to the United States after emancipation was proclaimed in 1865. Others remained, contributing to the establishment of a significant Black community in this part of Ontario.
Known as “Uncle Tom” through his connection to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Josiah Henson was one of the most famous Canadians of his day. Henson’s celebrity raised international awareness of Canada as a haven for refugees from slavery.
The Josiah Henson Museum of African-Canadian History recognizes the accomplishments of Josiah Henson through interpretive videos, interactive exhibits, numerous artifacts and tours that reflect the Black experience in Canada. The two-hectare (five-acre) site consists of the Josiah Henson Interpretive Centre, with its Underground Railroad Freedom Gallery and North Star Theatre, plus three historical buildings – including the Josiah Henson house – two cemeteries, a sawmill and numerous artifacts that have been preserved as a legacy to these early pioneers.
Throughout the year, the site hosts many fascinating programs and activities. For example, each August Civic Holiday weekend, the site hosts Emancipation Day with various speakers, performers, exhibits and cuisine that reflect early Black life in Ontario. In addition, Black History Month programming takes place each February, as well as a Diversity Dialogue retreat for youth in the spring and an annual workshop for educators on how to incorporate Canadian Black history into their curriculums.
The museum is owned and operated by the Ontario Heritage Trust.