As the curator for “How the Civil War Changed Washington” I told the histories of places and stories of people that were changed or that changed Washington before, during, and right after the Civil War. One of these fascinating stories was that of Tobias Henson. Henson was an African-American held in slavery by the Evans family of Maryland in an area which eventually would become part of Washington after the creation of the nation’s capital.
He was born around 1767. The first time Henson appeared in the official record was in an 1817 slave list in the estate appraisal of his owner, Philip Evans. Even then he was listed only as “Toby about 50 years of age” and given the value of $350. Also among the estate slaves were 22-year-old Matilda and 12-year-old Mary Ann, daughters of Tobias and his wife, Bessie Barton. Bessie, according to the family lore, was a red-headed Irish woman. But Tobias was only chattel, “an item of tangible movable or immovable property.”
After the death of his owner, Henson became the property of Philip Evans Jr. On Christmas Eve, 1818 Henson paid the inflated price of $400 for his freedom. He was deemed “able to work and gain a sufficient livelihood.” Tobias Henson was now known by his complete name and not by the nickname “Toby.”
In 1820, Henson married his second wife, Betsy Evans, another free African American. Between 1826 and 1833 Tobias Henson bought land and the freedom of his daughters and grandchildren. Ironically the 26 acres of land he bought, which became known as “The Ridge,” bordered the land that belonged to Mary Evans, the widow of his former owner. Master and former slave were now neighbors.
Besides being a hard worker, Henson was also very shrewd. He did not free his children immediately. By owning them, he could protect them from the hardships imposed on freed African-Americans. It also gave him some economic leverage. In 1832, he bought the freedom of Matilda and her child Mary Jane from Henry Evans, the younger son of Philip Evans. One year later, he bought the freedom of his other daughter Mary Ann from James Middleton for $300. Evidently short of cash at the time of the transaction, Tobias Henson obtained a loan from Henry Evans. He signed a promissory note for $150 in which he promised the services of Mary Ann to Evans for four days a week. Very soon he repaid the loan, freeing his daughter from the obligation. Now his family was completely free and able to progress, and so they did.
On Tuesday, October 25, 1859, on the eve of the Civil War, several of Tobias Henson’s descendants went to downtown Washington to get copies of their free papers. They might have donned their best clothes, piled into a cart or ridden smart-looking horses to go downtown. Registering at the U.S. District Court, they declared that they had been born free because decades earlier Tobias Henson had achieved his goal of obtaining freedom for himself and his family.
Tobias Henson’s descendants lived at “The Ridge” for several generations and formed a vibrant community. The last house to belong to a Henson descendant on “The Ridge,” always mentioned as the “home place,” was located at 1501 Alabama Avenue SE. It was sold in the early 1980s to the District of Columbia and razed in the early 2000s.
Henson’s memory did not fade completely from the oral history of the family. Although the surname Henson disappeared because Tobias fathered only girls, generations of Addisons, Douglasses, Smiths, and other families heard about their ancestor, Tobias Henson. “The Ridge” remained a distinct parcel of land on the maps of SE Washington, D.C. located off Hamilton Road later named Alabama Avenue well into the 20th century.
Then Janice Moore, a fourth-generation descendant of Tobias Henson, took up the research of his history and the history of the family. It was to her that I went in 2012 when I started researching Henson’s history for the Civil War exhibit.
I wanted to make a stark contrast in my exhibit between the free African-American community at “The Ridge” and the Giesborough Plantation, which belonged to George Washington Young. The plantation, which was the largest within the boundaries of the nation’s capital, and “The Ridge” were located a little over a mile away from each other.
Janice was wonderful. She provided me with all the information she had. She came to Washington, D.C. at her expense for a videotaped interview. She reviewed my work to make sure that I was telling the history of her family right.
On July 1, 2015, Janice came to see the exhibit with three generations of her family, they represented the 4th, 5th and 6th generations of descendants of Tobias Henson from “The Ridge.” It was with great pleasure that I guided them through a tour of the exhibit telling them how proud I was that they were bringing history alive with their presence.
When I started working on the script for this exhibit, I said to my bosses: “I don’t want to talk about Lincoln, the generals, battles and so on. I want to talk about people.” Tobias Henson and his descendants were part of this history that I have very proudly portrayed, and it was an honor to receive the visit of his descendants.