On March 23, 1749, months after his wife and children were sold to a new owner, Henry Brown escaped slavery in Richmond Virginia in a wooden box, sent by express mail to Philadelphia. After a harrowing 27-hour-long trip by railroad, steamboat, and wagon (part of it upside down) he arrived unharmed at the office of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society on Saturday morning, March 24, 1749.
When Henry came out of the box he sang, according to his own Narrative, a “Hymn of Thanksgiving,” which can be found as an anthem in The Old Colony Collection of Anthems, 1819. A member of a church choir in Richmond, he had chosen the song in advance, should he survive the journey. The hymn, which was soon printed in a shortened and full version with a depiction of the box, marked the beginning of Henry “Box” Brown’s career as a performing artist. He toured the country as an antislavery speaker and performer until the Fugitive Slave Act of September 18, 1850 forced him to move to England, where he continued to tour with a moving antislavery panorama.
The song “Escape from Slavery”
In this blog post I have used shadow puppets to illustrate another song that Brown used during his tours, which he wrote, in his own words, to commemorate his “fete in the box.” The song, which was printed with a depiction of the box as well as without, was set to the tune of Uncle Ned, a popular minstrel song at the time. As Brown’s biographer Jeffrey Ruggles describes in The Unboxing of Henry Brown, by 1849 blackface minstrel shows were the most popular form of entertainment in the North. Abolitionists hated the genre, but as singing was an integral part of antislavery meetings they turned some minstrel songs into abolitionist versions by changing the lyrics.
The song can be used as an interactive teaching tool about slavery and the Underground Railroad and the innovations in transportation and postal services in the 1840s, which abolitionists and fugitives used to their advantage. The song describes the various stages of Henry Brown’s 27-hour-long journey from Richmond to Philadelphia by Express, which is described in detail by Jeffrey Ruggles. The journey can be followed online in Google Earth using Dickinson College’s House Divided virtual tour, which includes historical map overlays, supporting text, historical images, and an interactive timeline (Make sure you download Google Earth first, then right-click the document (.kmz file) to open it in Google Earth).
The song illustrated with shadow puppets
The photos below were taken from the inside of a 40″ portable screen, instructions of which I shared in an earlier post.
Here you see a man by the name of Henry Brown,
Ran away from the South to the North;
Which he would not have done but they stole all his rights,
But they’ll never do the like again.
Chorus—Brown laid down the shovel and the hoe,
Down in the box he did go;
No more Slave work for Henry Box Brown,
In the box by Express he did go.
Then the orders they were given, and the cars did start away,
Roll along—roll along—roll along,
Down to the landing, where the steamboat met,
To bear the baggage off to the North.
When they packed the baggage on, the turned him on his head,
There poor Brown liked to have died;
There were passengers on board who wished to sit down,
And they turned the box down on its side.
When they got to the cars they throwed the box off,
And down upon his head he did fall,
Then he heard his neck crack, and he thought it was broke,
But they never throwed him off any more.
When they got to Philadelphia they said he was in port,
And Brown then began to feel glad,
He was taken on the wagon and carried to the place,
And left “this side up with care.”
The friends gathered round and asked if all was right,
As down on the box they did rap,
Brown answered them, saying “yes all is right,”
He was then set free from his pain.
Using shadow puppets to act out the story
Templates for the puppets of Henry Brown and William Still, author of The Underground Railroad, who was present when the box arrived in his office, can be downloaded from our Printable Library. (All other puppets can be created from templates in the 19th century mix and match section).
Acting out the scenes depicted above will require three students behind the screen. The person in the middle should hold the box against the screen with two moving rods, attached to both sides of the box with velcro, which will enable the box to tumble and turn upside down. Although the puppet of Henry Brown is completely foldable, it is best to use a black paper box, rather than the transparent material that I used, which will make it easier to make Henry Brown get inside and out of the box.
- Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself (Manchester, 1851) (electronic version)
- William Still: The underground railroad : A record of facts, authentic narratives, letters, &c. (..) (revised edition, 1878)
- Jeffrey Ruggles, The Unboxing of Henry Brown (biography, 2003)
- Hollis Robbins, “Fugitive Mail: The Deliverance of Henry “Box” Brown and Antebellum Postal Politics” (scholarly article, 2011)
- Martha Cutter, “Will the Real Henry “Box” Brown Stand Up?” (scholarly article, 2015)
- Henry Box Brown virtual field trip–House Divided, Dickinson College (detailed explanation of the trip including quotes, timeline, and historical map overlays on Google Earth. Includes educational resources and lesson plans.)
- Encyclopedia Virginia: Henry Box Brown (historical summary, resources, primary sources)
With thanks to Jeffrey Ruggles and to Davie-Lyn Jones-Evans and her 5th grade class