Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Henry "Box" Brown: an escape from slavery

Henry 'Box' Brown a liberating tale of slavery

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The enslaved Henry “Box” Brown in 1849 escaped from Virginia by being nailed into a box with a bladder of water, and then mailed to Philadelphia where abolitionists picked him up.

We learned about this on visits to several former Underground Railroad sites. But we never had heard the amazing life Brown lived after his escape and how he became a major entertainer in England.

Jeffrey Ruggles, a historian and photographer who wrote “The Unboxing of Henry Brown” (2003), was a lecturer at the Road Scholar Chautauqua program we recently attended in Staunton, Va.

From the age of 15, Brown worked for a tobacco company, the major crop in Virginia. He saved some money from his small salary to make his escape. His wife and three children belonged to another slave owner who decided to sell them.

This major turning point for Brown, 33 at the time, motivated him to work with James Smith, a free black dentist and shopkeeper, and Samuel Smith, a white local shoemaker, to arrange the mailing of the box. The box was 3 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 2½ feet deep. At times, it was not right side up as labeled as it was shipped by wagon, steamboat, rail, and ferry for 26 hours. After getting out of the box, he sang a song based on Psalm 40 demonstrating a powerful voice.

Unfortunately his arrival in the box hit the newspapers, which ended this means of escape for others. Once in Philadelphia his innate genius became apparent. He designed a stage show with James Smith, consisting of a moving panorama of large murals that showed what slavery was really like. This was a great success, but the federal law changed, and escaped slaves could be captured and returned to their owners. Brown’s solution was to flee to Liverpool, England, in 1851.

Ruggles went to England and managed to track down newspaper accounts of Brown’s performances across the country. At the time of his research, Ruggles had to find and read the original records, with no short cuts. He said that today you easily could find a hundred more stories about Brown because newspaper records are computerized.

Ruggles continued the story of Brown’s success. The first 10 years Brown toured with his antislavery panorama, the Mirror of Slavery, doing several hundred shows a year. Then he performed as a magician and still later as a mesmerist (hypnotist). In England, he was known as Professor H. Box Brown and The African Prince. While there, Brown married a Cornish woman, and she and one of his daughters became part of the act. In 1875 he returned to the U.S. with a family magic act. Brown died in Toronto, Canada in 1897.

What struck us as so remarkable was, that with no formal education and so few resources, Brown was able to develop performances that attracted large audiences. He might have spoken about slavery to more people than anyone else living during that time.

A number of books and plays written about Brown, including two by Brown himself, and a metal reproduction of his escape box is part of a monument to him on the Canal Walk in downtown Richmond.