By Kamau High, AFRO Managing

The president of the Montgomery Council is trying to change the name of a school in North Bethesda to that of a former slave, who was the basis for the main character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Montgomery County Council President Hans Riemer and Catherine Leggett, the first lady of Montgomery County, submitted a joint letter to the council July 20 proposing Woodward High School be named after Rev. Josiah Henson, who was a slave on a plantation near the site of the school.

The 1934 AFRO page with its story about Henson. (AFRO file)

The school is currently home to Tilden Middle School while simultaneously being redeveloped, and is expected to re-open as a high school in 2022, according to the letter, which was first reported by Bethesda Magazine.

“In 2022, the Tilden Middle building will reopen as Woodward High School. The middle school will move to the Tilden Center and open in 2019. The new high school is presumed to be named for Montgomery County Judge Charles W. Woodward, as it was previously.

The High School instead should be named for Josiah Henson, one of the most consequential figures to live in Montgomery County and a man who walked the very ground where these schools sit today,” the letter reads.

Henson, who published “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave” in 1849, went on to become a reverend, raise money for former slaves in Canada, where he escaped to, and travelled to Windsor Castle in England. While Henson was in England in 1876 he was given a large number of books, which were the subject of exhibition at the New York Library in 1934, according to an AFRO story about the event.

How the AFRO covered an exhibit about former Maryland slave Josiah Henson in 1934. (AFRO file)

Harriet Beecher Stowe read Henson’s biography and subsequently based the character Uncle Tom, from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly” on Henson. The anti-slavery novel was published in 1852 and brought the reality of slavery home to many people. The book continues to be a staple of school literature today.

As the letter to the Council says, “Josiah Henson, by struggling for freedom and writing his story, which provided the inspiration for Stowe’s novel, played a crucial and very specific role in the story of how our country finally ended slavery. Reverend Henson has never received the recognition that he deserves. He is one of Montgomery County’s greatest unsung heroes.”

The letter comes as the film “Josiah,” about Henson’s life, is set to be screened in August at AFI Silver in Silver Spring. The Road to Dawn: Josiah Henson and the Story That Sparked the Civil War, a book about Henson, was published in May.

School board President Michael Durso told Bethesda Magazine, “I think it has some interest, especially in the location of where Woodward is now.” He added, “So there’s a lot happening now, and my recommendation here with Catherine Leggett is to put this name out there and to ensure that it’s considered in the process.”