Sunday, May 31, 2009

Personality Spotlight: Henry "Box" Brown

In studying the history of slavery in the United States one quickly comes to realize that slaves had a large hand in the eventual abolition of the institution. Slaves resisted their oppression in diverse ways. Some slaves ran away; sometimes for long periods, or permanently, sometimes just for a few hours or days. Some pretended to be ill to get out of work. Some broke their tools. Some poisoned or used violence or arson to get back at cruel masters. Some even played tricks on their unsuspecting and haughty owners. One story was told about slaves who had had their meat ration cut back. In order to get back at their master, they hit a couple of beef cattle in the head with a mallet and killed them. When the master came out to see what had happened to the cattle, the slaves explained that the cattle had died of "malletitis." Worried that the "diseased" beef would not be good for his own family, the master gave it to the slaves to slaughter and eat. Of course nothing was wrong with the meat, but the slaves got what they wanted and felt like they deserved.

One good example of the lengths that slaves would go to be free is Henry Box Brown. Brown was born into slavery in about 1815 on a plantation in Louisa County, Virginia. At around 15 years old or so, Henry was leased to a tobacco manufacturer in Richmond. While in Richmond Henry met a slave woman named Nancy and they started a family together. They eventually had three children. Henry paid part of his wages to his own owner and part to Nancy's owner for her family time away from her master. Abruptly, in 1848, Nancy and the children were sold to an owner in North Carolina. Henry had been warned as a child by his mother that a slave's fate was not his own; that only when free could he make decisions for himself.

Henry desperately wanted to be free and devised a solution he thought would work. He would ship himself to the North and make good on this plea for freedom. In 1849, while still in Richmond, Henry contacted a man he knew that was secretly sympathetic to slaves' conditions and paid the man to make arrangements for him to be "received" in Philadelphia. Although they had painted "This Side Up" on the wooden box, Henry spent much of the 27-hour trip on his head. The box was quite cramped as it only measured three feet long by two feet wide by two feet eight inched deep. He had taken a container of water and a small drill to bore air holes when needed, but there were times he said he felt like his head was going to burst and his eyes were going to pop out. The trip North included many different forms of transportation. Part of the way the box was taken by wagon, then train, then steamboat, a ferry, and then a wagon again, and finally delivered to the address marked on the box.

Henry became a leading speaker for anti-slavery societies, both in the North and in England. He published two versions of his narrative, one in 1849 in Boston, and the other in 1851, in England, called Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown. Brown had moved to England to avoid the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, where presented theatrical performances of his escape called "Mirror of Slavery." Brown returned to the United States in the 1870s, but his place, date and cause of death are not known.

Henry Box Brown is memorialized today by teachers who want their students to know the efforts that slaves made to be free in antebellum America. He is also honored by a simple monument, a metal box the same size as he escaped in, on the Richmond, Virginia canal walk. For pictures of the monument see the following link:

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