Henry Box Brown

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The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia, a lithograph by Samuel Rowse published in 1850

Henry "Box" Brown (c.1816–after 1889)[1] was a 19th-century Virginia slave who escaped to freedom by arranging to have himself mailed to Philadelphia abolitionists in a wooden crate after 33 years of slavery. For a short time he became a noted abolitionist speaker and later a showman, but later lost the support of the abolitionist community, notably Frederick Douglass, who wished Brown had kept quiet about his escape so that more slaves could have escaped using similar means.

Childhood and slavery[edit]

Born into slavery in 1816, in Louisa County, Virginia, Henry Brown was born into a relatively gentle slave environment, never being deprived of food, clothing, shelter, or suffering from horrid inflictions of pain.[2]

Escape[edit]

After his wife and children were sold to a different slave owner, Henry Brown claimed to have received a "heavenly vision" to "mail [himself] to a place where there are no slaves." With the help of James C. A. Smith and a sympathetic white storekeeper named Samuel Smith (no relation), Brown devised a plan to have himself shipped to a free state by Adams Express Co. Brown paid $86 (out of his savings of $166) to Smith, who contacted Philadelphia minister James Miller McKim, who advised them to mail the box to the office of Quaker merchant Passmore Williamson. In order to get out of work for the day, Brown burned his hand to the bone with oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid).[3] Brown claimed that this uncertain method of travel was worth the risk; "if you have never been deprived of your liberty, as I was, you cannot realize the power of that hope of freedom, which was to me indeed, an anchor to the soul both sure and steadfast." [4]

During the trip, which began on March 23, 1849, Brown's box traveled by wagon, railroad, steamboat, wagon again, railroad, ferry, railroad, and finally delivery wagon. Despite the instruction "handle with care" and "this side up," several times during the 27-hour journey, carriers placed the box upside-down or handled it roughly. Brown was able to remain still enough to avoid detection.

The box containing Brown was received by Williamson, McKim, William Still, and other members of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee on March 24, 1849. When Brown was released, one of those present remembered his first words as "How do you do, gentlemen?" He then sang a psalm from the Bible he had previously selected for his moment of freedom.[5]

Life after[edit]

Brown became a well-known speaker for the Anti-Slavery Society. He was bestowed the nickname of "Box" at a Boston antislavery convention in May 1849, and thereafter used the name Henry Box Brown. He published two versions of his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown; first in Boston in 1849 and the second in Manchester, England, in 1851. Brown exhibited a moving panorama entitled "Mirror of Slavery" in the northeastern United States until he was forced to move to England after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Brown toured Britain with his antislavery panorama for the next 10 years, performing several hundred times a year and visiting virtually every town and city over that period.

Brown is known for his speaking out against slavery and his feelings about the state of America. In his Narrative, he offers a cure for slavery, citing increased number of slaves voting, electing a new president, and for the North to speak out against the "spoiled child" of the South.[6] He became an abolitionist, working closely with Frederick Douglas, who wished that Brown had been more subtle about the method of his successful escape so that more slaves could have been saved the same way. Instead, when Samuel Smith attempted to free other slaves in 1849, they were arrested.[7]

Brown stayed on the British show circuit for twenty-five years, until 1875, removing himself totally from the abolitionist circuit.[7] In the 1860s, he began performing as a mesmerist, and some time after that as a conjuror, under the show names Prof. H. Box Brown and the African Prince. Leaving his first wife and children in slavery (though he had the means to purchase their freedom),[8] he married a second time to a white British woman, and began a new family. In 1875, he returned to the U.S. with a family magic act. There is also a later report of the Brown Family Jubilee Singers.

Death[edit]

The date and location of his death are not known. The last record of Brown is a newspaper report of a performance by Brown at Brantford, Ontario, Canada dated February 26, 1889.[1]

Legacy[edit]

The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia, a lithograph by Samuel Rowse, depicted Henry Brown emerging from the shipping box into freedom in Philadelphia. The lithograph was published to help raise funds to produce Brown's anti-slavery panorama. One of only three known originals is preserved in the collection of the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond.[citation needed]

There is a monument to Henry "Box" Brown along the Canal Walk in downtown Richmond, Virginia in the form of a metal reproduction of the box in which Brown escaped.

In 2005, Brown was the subject of a Tony Kushner play entitled Henry Box Brown.[9] Thomas Bradshaw's play "Southern Promises", produced at P.S. 122 in New York City in 2008, features a character inspired by Brown.

Ellen Levine wrote a children's picture book entitled Henry's Freedom Box based upon Brown's life. The book, published in 2007, was illustrated by Kadir Nelson and was awarded the Caldecott Honor.[10]

A historical fiction book on Henry Brown was published in 2011 called The Disappearing Man, written by Doug Peterson.

A biography of Henry Box Brown was published in 2003, The Unboxing of Henry Brown, by Jeffrey Ruggles.

Another children's picture book, Freedom Song: The Story of Henry "Box" Brown, written by Sally M. Parker and illustrated by Sean Qualls, was published in 2012.[11]

In 2012, Louisa County set a historical marker honoring Henry Box Brown and his escape from slavery.[12]

Henry Box Brown is the subject of a 2012 film by director Rob Underhill.[13]

Playwright Mike Wiley wrote a one-man show about Henry Box Brown entitled One Noble Journey.

Other works[edit]

Song Sung by Mr. Brown on being removed from the Box:[14]

I waited patiently for the Lord
And he, in kindness to me, heard my calling
And he hath put a new song into my mouth
Even thanksgiving — even thanksgiving
   Unto our God!

Blessed-blessed is the man
That has set his hope, his hope in the Lord!
O Lord! my God! great, great is the wondrous work
   Which thou hast done!

If I should declare them — and speak of them
They would be more than I am able to express.
I have not kept back thy love, and kindness, and truth,
   From the great congregation!

Withdraw not thou thy mercies from me,
Let thy love, and kindness, and thy truth, always preserve me
Let all those that seek thee be joyful and glad!
   Be joyful and glad!

And let such as love thy salvation
Say always — say always
The Lord be praised!
   The Lord be praised!

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Spenser, S. (January 1, 2012). "Henry Box Brown (1815 or 1816–after February 26, 1889)". Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Retrieved May 17, 2012. 
  2. ^ Brown, p. 12
  3. ^ Robbins, Hollis (2009). "Fugitive Mail: The Deliverance of Henry "Box" Brown and Antebellum Postal Politics". American Studies 50: 5. doi:10.1353/ams.2011.0045. 
  4. ^ Brown, p. 60
  5. ^ Brown, Henry, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, (Revised version with introduction by Richard Newman, foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)
  6. ^ Brown, pp. 66–90
  7. ^ a b Spencer, Suzette. "Henry Box Brown". Retrieved March 8, 2013. 
  8. ^ Ruggles, Jeffrey, The Unboxing of Henry Brown. Library of Virginia, 2003.
  9. ^ Healy, Patrick (October 4, 2010). "An Unlikely Tony Kushner World Premiere, Courtesy of NYU". The New York Times. 
  10. ^ Caldecott Medal & Honor Books, 1938–Present | Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC). Ala.org. Retrieved on December 7, 2013.
  11. ^ Qualls, Sean. (March 5, 2012) News from Sean Qualls: Another *Starred Review (BCCB) for Freedom Song. Seanqualls.blogspot.com. March 5, 2012.
  12. ^ Historical Marker Honors Local Man Who Escaped Slavery. Newsplex.com (May 22, 2012). Retrieved on December 7, 2013.
  13. ^ Wix.com BlackBox created by RobUnderhill based on business-consulting-express | Wix.com. Robunderhill.wix.com. Retrieved on December 7, 2013.
  14. ^ Brown, Henry (1849). "Song, sung by Mr. Brown on being removed from the box". Boston, MA: Laing's Stream Press. 

Bibliography[edit]

  • Brown, Henry (1969). Narrtive of Henry Box Brown. Philadelphia, PA: Rhistoric Publications. 

External links[edit]