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 Heard It Through the Grapevine

Stories of the Underground Railroad

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There are so many remarkable stories among the lore of the Underground Railroad that they would fill up many volumes.  However, I would like to present some of the more memorable on this site, which I plan to change periodically.  Among the many that deserves our attention for its example of courage and determination is the story of Henry "Box" Brown.

Henry "Box" Brown

Brown was born as a slave on a tobacco plantation outside Richmond, Virginia. From an early age, he was a favorite of his master and became a house servant. He had more freedom than the average slave, and eventually, when his master died was sent to Richmond to work in the tobacco factory of one of his master's sons. There, Henry gained a semblance of freedom. He was able to live in his own residence, became a trusted member of a black church where he joined the choir, and married a slave (who had a different master) and had three children. The only problem was that he and his family weren't free, which meant they could be sold and separated at any time.

Plantation House in Louisa, VA today where Brown was born

Suddenly, one day in 1849, his wife and children were sold, and were to be sent to a plantation in the deep South. Henry was working at the factory when he learned this and that his family had been sent to a holding pen. This is where they kept slaves who had been sold before they were sent to their new home. Henry became hysterical and set out to the holding pen, but was stopped by a friend who warned him that he too might be sold if he interfered.

 

The next day, Henry watched as his family was transported in a coffle gang, which was simply a parade of slaves on foot chained together accompanied by men on horseback and their dogs.  He raced up to his wife and walked along with her for a while, while listening to the cries of his children who were in a wagon as was often the custom when transporting children. Finally, he held his wife one last time and watched her and his children disappear from his life forever.

 

One can only imagine what was going on in Henry's mind. One of the most dreadful things he learned was that his family had been purchased by a minister, a man of God! This caused him to lose faith in his church. It also made up his mind to run away and seek his freedom.  Sometimes, when we are put to the test, we can come up with some of the most imaginative ideas. Henry found such inspiration when he conceived the idea to have himself shipped in a box.

 

One of his fellow church choir members, James Caesar Anthony Smith, connected him with a man who had the notorious reputation of helping slaves to escape to freedom. This man, Samuel Alexander Smith, a white shoe store dealer, was only about 4 feet 9 inches tall. But he was a man with a great deal of guile and cunning. He had connections with the Vigilance Committee (Underground Railroad organization) in Philadelphia, and he took a trip there and met with its members, telling them of Brown's daring plan. The committee members were aghast. They advised against it. Brown more than likely would be caught, and if he weren't, he would likely suffocate or die of some other cause in that box along the way.  But Smith told him that Brown would not take no for answer, so the committee relented and made arrangements to surreptitiously retrieve the box at the mail station.

 

Finally, the night arrived on March 23, 1849, and both Smiths packed Henry, who was 5-8 and 200 pounds in the box they had fashioned. It was only 3 feet 1 inch long, 2 feet 6 inches high and 2 feet wide. Henry bored a couple small halls in the cover and brought a container of water. There was no telling how long he would have to remain in that little box. The route he was taking was 250 miles long, and involved transport on both trains and boats during the journey from Richmond to Washington, D.C., and then from Baltimore to Philadelphia.

 

Henry endured 27 hours in the box, sometimes upside down, as the box was moved on a number of occasions during the trip. It was extremely hot in the box, and when he emerged in the Vigilance Committee office in Philadelphia, he was soaking wet and exhausted. But he was not too exhausted to sing a hymn of praise to God.

Before long the word passed through the north about Henry's daring escape, and he became famous.  He moved to Boston, where abolitionists were making a great fuss over him, and wrote a book about his journey. He also began a speaking tour during which he also sang some of the religious hymns he had sung with his church choir.  Eventually, he was joined by James Caesar Anthony Smith, and he became part of Henry's lecture tour. Together, they entertained their audiences with songs, and as Henry became known as "Box" Brown, James Caesar Anthony became known as "Boxer" Smith, the man who boxed up Henry.  

 

Following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, an attempt was made to kidnap Henry in Providence, R.I. This convinced him  and Smith to move to England, where black abolitionists were welcomed and celebrated.  Along with them, they brought their show, which had evolved into a great panorama about slavery.  Panoramas, which were the rage of the day, were large moving canvasses painted by artists depicting stories that were narrated or sung about by the performers as they were conveyed along.

Scene from Brown's Panorama of Slavery

 

But less than a year after moving to England, Henry's partnership with James Caesar Anthony was terminated.  Henry was on his own now and his show began to transform, moving away from the topic of slavery and more into forms of entertainment like magic and mesmerism. After a time, he completely put his former life behind him and married an English actress, who became part of his show. They had a daughter, and she joined them on stage. In 1875, Henry brought his new family and their show to the U.S. They toured from 1875-to-1878. Henry was 63 then, but that is the last that we know of him alive. What happened thereafter to him or his second family is unknown, nor is anything known of what happened to his first wife and children.

 

If you want the full story, get a copy of Brown's biography, The Unboxing of Henry Brown, by Jeffrey Ruggles.

 

Performance at Cincinnati State College

In February, 2007, I did a lecture-performance of the story of Box Brown's life at Cincinnati State College, in which a re-enactment of Henry "Box" Brown's resurrection was presented.  Playing the role of Brown was Cincinnati performer, Ben Walker II.  There was a lot of history, some music, and an able performance by Walker.  Both of us were in period dress, and I portrayed J. Miller McKim as I told the story and opened the box.

 

I have since written a musical play with a large cast of characters based on this lecture.  My hope is that a theater group might take an interest and do a production.

 


 

Ben Walker II as Henry "Box" Brown

 

Tom Calarco as J. Miller McKim showing the route that took Brown to freedom

 

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