Thursday, February 2, 2017

Experience African American History in Montgomery County

Did you know that...
  • Montgomery County, MD was part of the Underground Railroad network, which helped runaway slaves find freedom?
  • Josiah Henson, who worked as a slave on a county plantation, later published an autobiography that influenced the abolition of slavery?
  • Because of the community of Quakers living in the Sandy Spring area, many slaves were freed as early as the 1820s, 40 years before the Civil War?
In honor of Black History Month, we’d like to share the extraordinary stories behind some of Montgomery County’s African American historical sites and provide resources and links to explore them further. Each of these Montgomery Parks sites have been or are in the process of being restored. Visitors can gain insight into life as an African American in centuries past, reflecting on the brutality of slavery in colonial America, while also learning about the rich cultural practices of African Americans passed down to later generations. The information below is compiled primarily from Montgomery Parks’ literature, MCPL databases and newspaper articles. Please see the reference list at the end of this post for more details.

Log cabin at Josiah Henson Park
This log cabin, built in 1850, was used as a kitchen
on the Riley Plantation.
Josiah Henson was born into slavery in 1789. As a child, he moved to Montgomery County as the property of Isaac Riley. In 1830 he and his family escaped to Canada. There, Reverend Henson formed a community for escaped slaves and later became a ‘conductor’ on the Underground Railroad. He also wrote his autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, which was published in 1849. Later editions included an introduction by author Harriet Beecher Stowe, who drew on Henson’s experiences for her own book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Learn more about Henson and Stowe from MCPL’s biography databases. 

Josiah Henson Park sign
Montgomery County acquired the Riley home in 2006. The log cabin dates back to 1850 and was built after Henson escaped, but ongoing archeological excavations are underway to locate the slave quarters that may have housed Henson. At this time, the Josiah Henson Park is open only for special events and school visits. Montgomery Parks plans to build a museum and interpretive center at the site. In celebration of Black History Month, tours and special events are scheduled for the weekend of February 25 and 26.    

Log cabin slave quarters
One of the remaining slave quarters
 in Montgomery County, MD.
The Oakley Cabin African American Museum & Park is only 2 miles from Olney Library, just west of Brookeville, MD. Originally built as one of three cabins in the early 19th century, this home was part of a larger farm owned by the Brooke family. Before emancipation, slaves lived here and helped run Oakley Farm. Census records reveal that from 1880 to 1930, African American and white laborers, farm workers, blacksmiths, and other craftspeople resided here. Historians believe they formed a community that sold produce and hand-made items to travelers  along busy Brookeville Road. The cabin remained occupied until the 1970s. 
Oakley Cabin sign The Oakley Cabin has been restored and is now a museum that displays historical tools and artifacts used in the 19th century, such as a coin and crystal found buried by the back door, an African tradition. Visitors can get a sense of life during the Civil War, Reconstruction and beyond. The museum is open the 2nd and 4th Saturdays, 12:00 PM -4:00 PM, April through November. Special programs such as Emancipation Day are planned annually and school group visits can be arranged. Learn more about slavery in Maryland from resources in MCPL’s collection and our online resources.  
Underground Railroad Experience Trail
Entrance to the Underground Railroad
Experience Trail
The Quakers, a Christian movement first started in England, built a thriving community around Sandy Spring, Brookeville and Olney, MD, from the early 18th century. Because of their anti-violence beliefs, Quakers didn’t participate in wars. They were also early abolitionists who established “one of the largest land-owning African American communities in Maryland” (Sandy Spring Museum). Quakers were active in the Underground Railroad, helping runaway slaves escape to freedom. See MCPL’s resources about the Quakers and the Underground Railroad. Please also visit our research databases, such as the Oxford African American Studies Center. 

Woodlawn Manor visitors center
This 3-story stone barn was recently converted
into an interactive visitors center.
The Woodlawn Manor Cultural Park consists of several buildings built by Quakers in the 19th century. A multimedia visitors center, housed in an 1832 stone barn, opened in the summer 2016. Each floor displays a different aspect of life, from managing a large plantation to working on the Underground Railroad. The center also hosts a two-mile Underground Railroad Experience Trail that gives visitors a chance to experience the dangers confronted by escaped slaves and the skills needed to survive in the wild. The trail and grounds are open year-round; the Woodlawn Visitor Center is open Wednesdays through Sundays, 10:00 AM - 4:00 PM, April through November. 

Learn more about MCPL’s programs in celebration of Black History Month. You can also learn more about local African American history and culture from the Montgomery County Historical Society.

Want to read more? Check out our earlier blog posts.

Montgomery Parks website 
Hembree, Michael. "Josiah Henson." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, Gale, 2006. Biography in Context, Accessed 30 Jan. 2017.
"Josiah Henson." Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 90, Gale, 2011. Biography in Context, Accessed 30 Jan. 2017.
Orndorff, Amy. “Three Hour Weekend: Oakley Cabin African American Museum and Park in Brookeville.” Washington Post. June 26, 2009.
Officials Unveil Designs For Josiah Henson Museum In North Bethesda.”  Bethesda Magazine.  February 5, 2013.
Shin, Annys.  After buying historic home, Md. officials find it wasn't really Uncle Tom's Cabin.”  Washington Post. October 3, 2010. 
Historic barn tells the story of the Underground Railroad in Maryland.Washington Post.  August 15, 2016.


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