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Lakeshore Library Screens Documentary ‘Josiah,’ a Forgotten Story of Slavery, Freedom, and Bravery

The Lakeshore Branch Library in Buchanan Dam is screening the documentary 'Josiah' by Jared Brock (right) on June 19, or Juneteenth. Courtesy images

BUCHANAN DAM — A book he and his wife found in a Florida bookshop in 2014 took Jared Brock on a 2½-year, 3,000-mile journey retracing the steps and story of Josiah Henson, the man who inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s main character in her classic work “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

“Josiah was an incredible person, and his story is one, for some reason, we’ve forgotten or lost,” Brock said.

As he looked into Henson’s life, which included 41 years as a slave, Brock knew he had to share Henson’s life. For those 2½ years, he read every book he could find about Henson, including the man’s own slave narrative, looked through hundreds of pages of 150-year-old newspapers on microfiche, and journeyed — with a film crew — from Henson’s slave home in Maryland to Canada, where he gained his freedom.

Henson’s story didn’t end once he and his family arrived in Canada; the former slave returned to America, and the slave states, to lead at least 118 other slaves to freedom, knowing that if he got caught, death was certain.

Brock turned his research into the documentary “Josiah,” narrated by Danny Glover, and a book, “The Road to Dawn: Josiah Henson and the Story that Sparked the Civil War.”

Lakeshore Branch Library, 7346 RR 261 in Buchanan Dam, is screening the film at 6 p.m Tuesday, June 19, which is Juneteenth, which commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas in 1865. The screening is free, but reservations are needed. Call the library at (325) 379-1174.

If you ask most people who Josiah Henson was, you’d likely get a shrug. That’s unfortunate because Henson helped bring an end to the evil institution of slavery, which left his arms and shoulders damaged to the point he couldn’t raise them above his head. It was a small passage in the book Brock uncovered in that Florida bookstore that piqued his interest in Henson. It seems Stowe, who knew of Henson and his life, based her character Uncle Tom on him. Stowe’s book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published in 1852, gave one of the first real looks at the life of slaves in the South and the cruelty they endured.

Once Brock learned of Henson, he was amazed he had never heard of him and that Henson’s legacy had been lost. Brock’s book and documentary are his efforts to return Henson to his rightful place in history and help reclaim the idea that Uncle Tom was a noble character, one youth of all races should embrace and aspire to become like.

“The first thing I want to do with the book and documentary is reintroduce Josiah to the world and help him take his place in the pantheon of great abolitionists like Frederick Douglas and Stowe,” Brock said. “The second thing is, we have to talk about Uncle Tom. In Stowe’s book, he was a noble man of incredible character, but over the years, with minstrel shows and black face and all those things, Uncle Tom has come to become something negative — and he wasn’t.”

Stowe saw the courage Henson demonstrated in his life, both as a slave and as a free man, and put those characteristics into Uncle Tom.

Henson’s bravery still resonate today, Brock said.

He pointed out that, after Henson and his family escaped from slave owners in Maryland in 1830, he arrived at the Canadian border, where a Scottish man waiting to help them cross asked Henson how he planned to use his freedom.

He answered, “I will use my freedom well.”

“He could have just went on to live a good life in Canada,” Brock said, “but he started a settlement for other former slaves. And, he went back and rescued 118 people from slavery.”

The author and documentary filmmaker said Henson’s story is one about the stewardship of freedom.

“That’s something I ask myself: Am I using my freedom well, to make a difference?” Brock said.

It’s a question he hopes others will ask themselves after reading the book or watching the documentary.

Are you using your freedom to foster justice and equality?

Brock, who traveled to all the plantations connected with Henson, doesn’t shy away from the brutality of slavery in his works. He’s concerned that, over the years, people have come to romanticize slavery, and it was anything but romantic.

“One of Josiah’s first memories was watching his dad get whipped 100 times to the white of the bone and then get his ear cut off,” Brock said. “Then, he was sold that day.”

The purpose of the documentary and book isn’t to lay blame or shame people but to remind readers and viewers about the reality of slavery and how one man held on to his values despite countless beatings and cruel treatment over his 41 years as a slave, going on to shape history.

“Josiah was a good man,” Brock said. “When I learned about him, I was like, ‘How could I have never heard about him before?’ I want people to hear his story because we can learn a lot from him.”

Go to josiahhenson.com to watch the trailer for the documentary and download the first chapter of the book for free. You can also order the book through the website.

Also, make plans to see the documentary June 19 at Lakeshore Library.

daniel@thepicayune.com

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