Descendant of slave, explorer talks of heroes

James E. Henson Sr. wasn't about to let 6 inches of snow keep him from a speaking engagement yesterday at Howard County's Savage branch library.

After all, his great-uncle, Matthew A. Henson, was co-discoverer of the North Pole on April 6, 1909, with Adm. Robert E. Peary.


As scheduled, Henson, 67, was in the library's conference room at 2 p.m., ready to talk about Matthew Henson and Josiah Henson, his great-great-great uncle, whose life as a runaway slave and preacher who escaped to Canada was depicted in the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.

But it appeared that James Henson was alone in his defiance of the snow, as he stood in the empty conference room.


Then Jennie Weissert, 10, showed up. And the Gaus family arrived, and Jennie's grandmother, Lois Weissert, came, which made an audience of six.

About 30 children had signed up for the talk, said Dione Mahoney, a library associate in the children's section.

"We know about Matthew Henson, but the little-known facts about Josiah Henson make it a richer presentation," Mahoney said. "These two people are instrumental in two different spheres of life - one in advancing science, and one in advancing the cause of dignity and human freedom."

James Henson retired in 1997 after five years as director of the county's human rights office. In 1981, he was hired as the county's first African-American attorney.

"This is one of the most exciting things I do, tell the story of my family members who just happen to be national heroes," said Henson. "And I hope the young people can realize they, too, can be national heroes."

He asked Jennie, and Abby and Joshua Gaus, ages 5 and 8, respectively, to stand up.

"We could be looking at a future president of the United States, a future governor of Maryland, future lawyers, doctors and inventors," he said. "So let's give the young people applause for what they might be."

Henson first told the group about the Rev. Josiah Henson, whose history as a slave, escaped slave, property owner, educator and businessman has received less attention than his great-uncle's Arctic explorations.


Born into slavery in 1789 on LaGrange plantation in Port Tobacco, Josiah Henson had dreams and ambition. Growing up, he displayed a strong work ethic and eventually became the overseer at LaGrange.

"He said that he could out-sport and outwork any of the other slaves on the plantation," Henson said.

Under orders from the plantation owner, Josiah Henson took 18 slaves to a Kentucky plantation, where he also became the overseer. It was here that he became a preacher in the Methodist church and decided to escape to freedom.

He made his way to Canada with help from the Underground Railroad. Henson prospered in his adopted country, and became a landowner, businessman and abolitionist, helping other slaves to go to Canada.

After Harriet Beecher Stowe read his autobiography in 1849, she incorporated his experiences into Uncle Tom's Cabin.

"Where does greatness start?" Henson asked the group, after sharing Josiah Henson's story.


"In your brain," answered Abby.

Although the achievements of Matthew Henson are more widely known than those of Josiah Henson, the African-American explorer received little recognition during his lifetime.

On April 6, 1909, after six attempts, Peary and Matthew Henson completed the first successful expedition to the North Pole.

James Henson said that his great-uncle learned to speak Inuit and saved Peary's life twice.

A year before Henson's death in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented him with an award for his accomplishments.