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On Tuesday, the state of Virginia held a very tightly fought gubernatorial election. Many of the news channels had reported that Critical Race Theory (the new Willie Horton if you’re old enough to remember him) was used as a scare tactic to win votes.
I’m not here to talk about politics or the merits of teaching our children the truth about our county’s history. I just want to point out that it was in Virginia, on a plantation called Hermitage, that the 33 year old slave named Henry “Box” Brown (c. 1815 – June 15, 1897) escaped by mailing himself in a wooden crate to some abolitionists in Philadelphia, PA.
Yes, you read that right. He mailed himself.
Before Rudy we had Do, a quiet older man of Chinese heritage who was around for about a year. Before Do was Rick, literally the best mailman in the world and someone I developed a great, life-long friendship with. There was also Robert who delivered mail to our house in Hollywood. And LeTonya who used to take her lunch break at our apartment complex. As far as I know, I don’t recall any of them delivering a human.
All but one of these postal service employees are people of color. People whose history is deeply rooted in stories of slavery, prejudice, and injustice. I have no idea what it’s like to be an enslaved person. But I can imagine I would do whatever it takes to keep the freedom that so many of us take for granted.
It’s stories like Henry “Box” Brown that show us how valuable and fragile our freedom is. His story also reminds us that it is a risk worth taking.
I had a few questions, perhaps you have some too. For example:
How did he do it? According to Wikipedia, “With the help of James C. A. Smith, a free black man, and a sympathetic white shoemaker named Samuel A. Smith (no relation), Brown devised a plan to have himself shipped in a box to a free state by the Adams Express Company, known for its confidentiality and efficiency.”
How much does it cost to mail a human? That’s hard to say because it’s not very legal. However Henry “Box” Brown paid Samuel Smith $86 (equivalent to $2,675 in 2020), a little over half of his personal savings he had saved up.
How did he get out of work that day on the plantation? Once his escape plan was in place, Brown burnt his hand to the bone with sulfuric acid to get out of work. Now, I’ve done some crazy things to get out of doing something but all have been short of harming myself.
Was it really a box? Yes, it was. I am not sure who built it or what it looked like, but according to his own testimony, the box was only 3 x 2.67 x 2 feet. On it’s sides the words "dry goods" was painted. The inside was lined with a coarse woolen cloth called baize. It had only one hole for air to get in. Once Brown was inside (with only a small portion of water and a few biscuits), his friends nailed the box shut and tied with straps.
According to Wikipedia, the box was loaded onto a wagon on on March 29, 1849. From there it was placed on a rail car, then a steamboat, another wagon, another railroad, a ferry, yet another railroad, and finally a delivery wagon, being completed in 27 hours. That’s better than Amazon Prime! “Despite the instructions on the box that said "handle with care" and "this side up," several times carriers placed the box upside-down or handled it roughly. Brown remained still and avoided detection.”
No one was sure if this method of travel would work. But some time after he was a free man, Brown wrote, "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."
I asked my daughter, “What is the one thing you found the most interesting about this man?” She said, “Even though he still lived in hiding, he got up on the stage and told his story.” Though they share two different stories, they have much in common. They both possess bravery, determination, and faith, using them all together to find and create their own freedoms. And aren't these the true qualities of the American spirit, the very spirit of our freedom?
Brown’s history is the real history of our country and all of her people. Why some states don’t want it being told amazes me.
After he was free, Brown became a well-known speaker for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. He was nicknamed "Box" at a Boston antislavery convention in May 1849, and thereafter used the name Henry Box Brown.
Before leaving Richmond he had selected for his arrival-hymn (if he lived) the Psalm beginning with these words: ”I waited patiently for the Lord, and He heard my prayer.” And most touchingly did he sing the psalm, much to his own relief, as well as to the delight of his small audience”
While there, Brown married his second wife (his first along with their three children were sold to other slave owners) Jane Floyd, a white Cornish tin worker's daughter, in 1855 and began a new family. He earned a living as a speaker, and as a magician, using the names "Prof. H. Box Brown" and the "African Prince.”
In 1875, he returned with his family to the U.S. with a group magic act. He died in Toronto on June 15, 1897.