Montgomery County Department of Parks staff discussed a proposal Thursday to transform Uncle Tom's Cabin Special Park on Old Georgetown Road in North Bethesda's Luxmanor neighborhood into a museum and research area of local, national and international interest.
The staff presented their draft of a new master plan for the site to the Montgomery County Planning Board Sept. 16 to have it approved for a public hearing, allowing for more public input on the future of the historic site.
"This park is already a community treasure, and what this plan does is allows the community to talk about what it means to them," said Rachel Newhouse, project manager for the master plan.
The 1.5-acre park covers part of the Isaac Riley plantation, the farm of a Maryland slave-owning family where Reverend Josiah Henson grew from early childhood before escaping from slavery. Henson is best known as the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.
A proposal before the Planning Board to officially change the name of the park from Uncle Tom's Cabin Special Park to Josiah Henson Special Park was deferred until a later meeting while the parks department collects more public opinion on the switch.
The master plan outlines a strategy to interpret Henson's life and the history of slavery in Montgomery County, retain the historic integrity of the property and create a safe, accessible site. That vision includes the creation of a public museum that, according to the plan, "celebrates the challenging and inspiring life of Rev. Josiah Henson… educates visitors about the enslavement of African Americans in Maryland; and promotes a greater appreciation of history in Montgomery County."
"This is really a little treasure, and we're just trying to make people aware of it," Newhouse said.
The parks department's suggested course of action would expand programs at the park to include one open day each month between February and November, allow for more special request tours from school groups and hire one full-time staff member.
The plan also calls for the demolition of Rozier house – a 1960s-era home on the property – to preserve the historic nature of the land. That demolition will also allow for further archaeological research, a major component of the plan.
"This puts us on the path to developing a really extraordinary museum," said Shirl Spicer, parks department museum manager.
The plan is the culmination of an effort that included two public hearings earlier that drew residents from the surrounding neighborhood, as well as archaeologists and historians.
Those meetings formed the back bone of the master plan, Newhouse said during the Planning Board meeting.
Also supporting the plan at the meeting were representatives from the surrounding Luxmanor neighborhood and Anita Neal Powell, president of the Lincoln Park History Foundation and Society.
Powell said she supported the plan and the efforts the parks department staff took to include people in the area.
"We've been working very closely with the staff, and I think they're going in the right direction," said Anita Neal Powell. "You see the public's contributions in this plan."
The public is invited to voice their opinion again at the Oct. 28 meeting. A draft of the master plan is available on park's web site.