Story of slavery in Montgomery County to gain new life -- Gazette.Net


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Speeding along Old Georgetown Road in North Bethesda, it is easy to miss the white clapboard house just south of Tilden Lane and even easier to miss its historical significance.

The house once was the center of the 200-plus-acre Riley Plantation, where the slave Josiah Henson lived and worked from 1795 to 1830, when he escaped to Canada and freedom.

After escaping, Henson wrote an autobiography that is said to have inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write the famous anti-slavery book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Montgomery Parks, which owns the now 1.5-acre site, is developing plans for a visitors center and interpretive program to introduce visitors to a history of slavery in Maryland and the life of Henson on the farm.

“It is unique,” Montgomery Parks Museum Manager Shirl Spicer said. “This is one of the only sites in the United States that can focus on Josiah Henson and has a structure. To have this treasure in the community is very exciting.”

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission held a public meeting Feb. 4 at Tilden Middle School in Rockville to unveil proposed designs and site changes and get public comment on improvements at Josiah Henson Park, at 11420 Old Georgetown Road.

Schematic designs for the visitor center included a multipurpose theater to introduce visitors to the life of Josiah Henson, a small retail area and public restrooms. They also included changes to the existing house, known as the Riley/Bolten House after two former owners, and site changes to make it more accessible.

Proposals for interpretive programs and exhibits, both on the grounds and inside the house, also were revealed.

Planning for the site is being done by LSC Design, an architecture and engineering group from York, Pa., and Experience Design, of Boston, said Eileen Emmet, Montgomery Parks project manager.

“One of the primary goals of the project is to make the site accessible to the public and provide museum-quality exhibits related to the life of Josiah Henson, his story, and its relationship to Harriet Beecher Stowe,” Emmet said.

Emmet said there is no exact date for the completion of the project; much will depend on funding from the county. She said cost estimates will be available in June.

“It is in the facility planning stage and, at the end of June, we hope to take it to the planning board to transmit the project and the budget to the County Council,” she said.

Montgomery Parks celebrates Black History Month at Josiah Henson Park from noon to 4 p.m. every Saturday in February with free guided tours.

“The last Saturday of the month, we have our spoken-word event, where people can share their poetry about black history, slavery or Josiah Henson,” Spicer said. “That is from 3 to 4 p.m.”

pmcewan@gazette.net