New Evidence Tells Of Man’s Escape From Slavery In A Box

Imagine being stuffed inside a small box and traveling by rail from Richmond to Pennsylvania. Now imagine making that journey in 1849. That's exactly what the slave Henry "Box" Brown did in order to ensure his freedom. Recently, a letter documenting Brown's arrival in Pennsylvania was uncovered. Host Michel Martin explores the amazing story of Henry "Box" Brown, and where his journey took him after he gained his freedom with Jeffrey Ruggles. He's a curator at the Virginia Historical Society and author of the book "The Unboxing of Henry Brown".

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We often talk about freedom in this country, but do you ever think about what you would do to be free? Well, imagine putting yourself in a box, three feet long, two feet, eight inches deep, and barely two feet wide. Now, imagine sending that box to Pennsylvania from Richmond, Virginia by rail. That's exactly what the enslaved American Henry Brown did in March of 1849, a feat that was both an amazing and harrowing journey. So much so that Henry Brown adopted the middle name Box to commemorate his path to freedom.

For many years the man who received Brown's delivery remained mostly silent. James Miller McKim, a white abolitionist, documented the account in a letter to a friend, but he wrote: and now I have one request. For heaven's sake, don't publish this affair or allow it to be published.

But recently, the letter was made available to The New York Times by the New York Historical Society. Naturally, we wanted to know more. So, we've called Jeffrey Ruggles, author of the book "The Unboxing of Henry Brown" and a curator at the Virginia Historical Society and he is with us now. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. JEFFREY RUGGLES (Author, "The Unboxing of Henry Brown"; Curator, Virginia Historical Society): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: How did you find out about this?

Mr. RUGGLES: Well, it started out as a local history story in Richmond, Virginia. And as I looked into it more and more, the story just grew and grew.

MARTIN: Did anybody not believe it? I mean, it's often that many of these stories were considered apocryphal at the time, or they were considered just to make a point about the horrors of slavery. And it's often been years before people realize these things actually did happen. So, was it known at the time that Henry Brown's story was, in fact, true?

Mr. RUGGLES: Well, despite the feelings of some people that the journey should remain secret, so that other slaves would have - might have an opportunity to escape, publicity about Brown's escape came pretty quickly after. He escaped at the end of March, and by May, he was appearing at a large anti-slavery convention in Boston and was lauded in the press for his exploit.

MARTIN: So, who thought it should remain secret? He evidently did not. Who didn't think it should be?

Mr. RUGGLES: Well, Brown really didn't get to make the call. Within the abolitionist movement, there were several different camps of thought. Frederick Douglass is well known as somebody who thought that it should not have been made public, whereas there were other abolitionists, mostly white, who thought it would be good publicity, it was such a good story. And actually the way that it came out, it was just people couldn't keep from telling the story.

MARTIN: So, what did Brown do after he reached freedom?

Mr. RUGGLES: He went on the abolitionist speaking circuit. He had a song that he had sung upon his arrival in Philadelphia. He performed that at anti-slavery meetings. He published a slave narrative of his life and his escape. And eventually he produced a moving panorama on slavery.

MARTIN: That was a form of theater. As I understand it, that was popular at the time, that involved what, like a moving backdrop or something like that?

Mr. RUGGLES: It was like a giant scroll with paintings. And it was really more like a slideshow because they would have one painted image and then they'd wind to the next image. Brown made one about slavery, about Africans in freedom, and Africa being enslaved and brought to America and then the trials of families being split up, stories of escapes, and then it ended up with his escape to freedom.

MARTIN: As I understand it, he had to leave the country for a time, because he escaped in 1849, which was just before the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850. So, he went to England. What did he do there? And did he eventually come back?

Mr. RUGGLES: He was forced to go to England. He took his moving panorama with him, and he went on to the show circuit in Great Britain. He was on the circuit for 25 years. Eventually, he returned to the United States in 1875.

MARTIN: So, why do you think his story has remained in relative obscurity all of these years. I take your point that there was a split of whether this was a really good idea to disclose the circumstances or not because it would - by publicizing it, it would make it harder for other people to follow in his footsteps, which were hard enough to do, but why do you think that it isn't that well known?

Mr. RUGGLES: I think there are a couple of reasons. One, the fact that he went to Great Britain, and he was sort of separated from the rest of the abolitionist movement and the anti-slavery movement, not coming back till the 1870s. So, that's part of it. Part of it also was the personality of Brown. Now, Brown was really pretty much of a working class guy, and most of the people in the anti-slavery movement were very well educated. A lot of them were involved in the temperance movement.

Some of them wouldn't even read novels. And Brown was much more of a guy of the people. He would into a pub, throw some dice. And the way he behaved really didn't suit some of the folks in the anti-slavery movement. When he went to Great Britain, in fact, he kind of split all together from the anti-slavery folks and he just went into the popular theater side. And I think most of the history has been written from the papers of the abolitionists and the anti-slavery folks, who were very literate and saved a lot of things.

MARTIN: So, finally, as somebody who appreciates history, what do you find most compelling about Henry Brown's story?

Mr. RUGGLES: Well, I think that the escape in the box, as miraculous as it was, was really only the beginning of Brown's story. And it's the way that he fashioned for himself a new life. He had great imagination, and he didn't just show the moving panorama. He became an electro-biologist, which was a kind of a show in those days. He became a magician. He created himself a new life, and I think if Brown were alive today, the kind of power that he had and the imagination, I think we would've all heard of him.

MARTIN: I think he'd be Jay-Z.

Mr. RUGGLES: Well...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...or Puff Daddy.

Mr. RUGGLES: Could be. I really think that's the kind of guy he was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Jeffrey Ruggles is a curator at the Virginia Historical Society. He's author of the book "The Unboxing of Henry Brown," an enslaved American who packaged himself and sent himself to freedom by train. Mr. Ruggles is with us from WCVE in Richmond. If you want to see a picture of Henry Brown, there's a lithograph at the Virginia Historical Society's site. We link to it. Just go to npr.org, click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE. Mr. Ruggles, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. RUGGLES: Thanks for having me.

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