Historic Site Just 3 Hours From Toronto Reveals A Whole Other Side Of Canada’s Black History

The founder helped free over 100 people enslaved in the U.S.

Contributing Writer
The Josiah Henson Museum of African-Canadian History.

The Josiah Henson Museum of African-Canadian History.

Raven Gordon | Narcity

Three hours west of Toronto there’s a museum that brings Black history to life.

The Josiah Henson Museum of African-Canadian History highlights the stories of Henson and other freedom fighters who settled in Canada in the 19th century.

The museum is located on an 81-hectare estate in Dresden, Ontario. The estate was once home to the Dawn Settlement, a community Henson helped found in 1841 to provide refuge to those fleeing slavery.

The land is so vast and really makes you reflect on what life was like for those making the trek by foot in search of freedom.

The settlement became a self-sufficient Black community with a church, a vocational school and a farm.

The estate on the former Dawn Settlement.The estate on the former Dawn Settlement.Raven Gordon | Narcity

Some of the structures are still standing and have been restored, giving you a chance to explore them first-hand.

Before founding the settlement, Henson was an Underground Railroad conductor and helped to free more than 100 people enslaved in America.

His life as an enslaved person served as the real-life inspiration behind the title character Uncle Tom in an 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Issues of Uncle Tom's Cabin: An Anti-Slavery Novel.Issues of Uncle Tom's Cabin: An Anti-Slavery Novel.Raven Gordon | Narcity

The museum, which is owned and operated by the Ontario Heritage Trust, was formerly known as Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site.

During the rise of minstrel plays which saw white actors in blackface, the name and term Uncle Tom became derogatory.

In an effort to reclaim and preserve Henson’s identity, the museum was renamed to its current title in July 2022.

"Josiah Henson was a real person. He actually existed and lived here," said Jackie Bernard, a Programs Assistant at the museum.

A display of Josiah Henson at the museum.A display of Josiah Henson at the museum.Raven Gordon | Narcity

Bernard is hopeful the name change will boost visitors to the museum and said, "there’s no time like the present,” to plan your visit.

With all the different artifacts on display, including some of the control devices, this museum complex really gives you a strong sense of what enslaved Black people endured.

This Black History Month you can make an in-person visit from February 7 to 10. You can also attend a free-virtual tour on February 28. For details, click here.

This museum should definitely be on your list of places to see and explore, especially during the summer months — where there's plenty of outdoor space to enjoy a picnic while learning about this important piece of Canadian history.

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Raven Gordon
Contributing Writer
Raven Gordon is a contributing writer for Narcity Canada.
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