A proposal to change the name of a 1.5-acre park in North Bethesda from Uncle Tom's Cabin Special Park to Josiah Henson Special Park is currently before the Montgomery County Planning Board. The Reverend Josiah Henson, who was the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe's main character in her novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin," never actually lived in the cabin that's slated to become a museum. Henson lived on the property but left more than a decade before the cabin was built, which was discovered after the property was purchased in 2006.
The county hopes to approve the plan that includes interpretive programming and ongoing research. A public hearing was held on Oct. 28 to solicit comments to the proposed name change. A work session with the Planning Board is scheduled for Nov. 18 to respond to the public's input.
David Rotenstein, a Silver Spring resident, was appointed to Montgomery County's Historic Preservation Commission in 2004 by Doug Duncan, former County Executive of Montgomery County. He served two three-year terms on the commission. Rotenstein is a freelance historian with 25 years experience in public- and private-sector work, including regulatory compliance and historic preservation consulting.
Patch: Will the proposed name change impact the number of visitors to the park?
David Rotenstein: It's too early to speculate. Uncle Tom's Cabin is inherently more sexy than the Josiah Henson Special Park. In some respects they lose some of the curb appeal that the popular name Uncle Tom's Cabin carries.
Patch: Does the fact that Henson didn't live in the cabin devalue the property?
DR: The property is historically significant no matter how you parse the elements of the stories attached to it. The fact that Rev. Henson lived there as a slave but never lived in the log building doesn't devalue the property from a historical standpoint. It simply changes the focus of the story.
Patch: Is the county accurately telling the history of the property?
DR: Harriet Beecher Stowe did in fact read Josiah Henson's autobiography and Josiah Henson did in fact spend his youth on the Riley plantation. With that said, at some point in the late 19th or early 20th century the old log building at the property somehow became known as Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Patch: How do people confuse fiction with fact?
DR: You have places literally throughout the world that have in one way or another legends attached to them and these historical legends frequently have some basis in fact. The challenge to academics and to people making public policy is to discern where historical fact ends and the legend begins. There has been a failure at every level since the county designated it a historic site in 1979 to 2006 when the county bought it for $1 million, to the present day when county-funded studies have not fully addressed the interrelationships of oral traditions and historical fact of the property.
Patch: Do you believe that the county is continuing to fuel the legend?
DR: The legend attached to the property has been alive for a very long time and the county is trying to do several things. First, they want to find a way to save face after telling the world that it bought Uncle Tom's Cabin, when it fact it bought a log kitchen built 20 years after the inspiration for Uncle Tom's Cabin left the plantation. Second, the county, in good faith, is trying to find a way to interpret the property that does justice to its very significant historical past and offers the county a return on its investment.
Patch: Is the county accurately interpreting the history of the property?
DR: The county has gotten off to a slow start in taking advantage of all the research opportunities in the architecture, the primary documents, the landscape and the archaeology. The county has paid more than $100,000 for specialist studies that barely scratch the surface and that doesn't address some of the more important questions surrounding the property's history. First and foremost among those questions is how the Uncle Tom's Cabin identity became so identified with the historic log building. From a professional perspective I'd like to see more historians, and perhaps a folklorist, and fewer archaeologists develop an interpretive strategy for the park.
Patch: It sounds as if you'd like the county to approach the project more holistically. Is this correct?
DR: Yes, I would like the county's approach to be as interdisciplinary and comprehensive as possible to take full advantage of the property's research potential.
Patch: Do you have an alternative name for the property?
DR: If it were up to me, I'd suggest calling it the Montgomery County African American Heritage Park. This way you lose the fallacy of the log building being Uncle Tom's Cabin and you lose the awkwardness of using a name that many may not be familiar with – Josiah Henson – and capture the true intent of the county's motivation for buying the property and developing the park.
Patch: Was The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission a good steward of the county's financial resources?
DR: I think it reflects very poorly on them. I think the county should have done its due diligence. In other words, perform the specialist studies before buying the property. To give you an example, you see something on ebay that you think you absolutely must have but the auction time is running out. Are you going to buy it without being sure that what you're buying is the real deal?
Patch: What lessons do you think Montgomery County can learn from the confusion surrounding the property's history?
DR: I think it underscores how important accurate historical research is in publically administered historic preservation programs. There likely would have been less confusion surrounding the property had Montgomery County historians not so clearly identified the log building as Uncle Tom's Cabin.