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The Escape of Henry "Box" Brown
The old adage "desperate times call for desperate measures" sums up many of the escape attempts made by slaves during the era of the Underground Railroad. Daring, inventiveness, endurance, and heroism were all qualities the runaway needed to have in the attempt to gain freedom. The annals of the Underground Railroad abound with tales illustrating these qualities. One such story is the saga of Henry Brown.
Brown was a slave living in the city of Richmond in the late 1840s. His tale was told in the writings of William Still, the great black abolitionist and member of the Underground Railroad network in Philadelphia. Still was directly involved in Brown's escape and gives all the details of the event. He refers to Brown as "a man of invention as well as a hero." According to Still, Brown could no longer endure being a slave, and in 1848, he decided to seek Freedom by fleeing to Pennsylvania. Brown knew that attempting to leave Richmond would be a hazardous undertaking. Slave catchers patrolled the border with Pennsylvania, and this made land and water travel very risky, and if caught, he would face the wrath of his master. Brown came up with an ingenious and radical plan: He would enclose himself in a wooden crate and have himself shipped to abolitionists in Philadelphia. Still described the crate Brown had made for himself:
The size of the box and how it was to be made to fit him most comfortably was of his own ordering. Two feet eight inches deep, two feet wide, and three feet long were theexact dimensions of the box, lined with baize.
His resources with regard to food and water consisted of the following: One bladder of water and a few small biscuits. His mechanical implement to meet the death-struggle for fresh air, all told was one large gimlet (a small tool for drilling holes).... He entered his box, which was safely nailed up and hooped with five hickory hoops, and was then addressed by his next friend, James A. Smith, a shoe dealer, to Wm. H. Johnson, Arch street, Philadelphia.
Smith took the crate to the Adams' Express office and shipped it to Philadelphia. What followed next had to be a ride of agony aboard freight wagons and a railway boxcar. The complete journey lasted about twenty-six hours, with Brown traveling on his head part of the way because the teamsters handling the crate ignored the label "This End Up," which had been placed on the side of the crate.
The crate containing Brown arrived in Philadelphia, and through the paying of a bribe, the members of the Anti-Slavery Society in the city had it delivered to their offices at 107 North Fifth Street. Present when the crate arrived were society members J. M. McKim, C. D. Cleveland, Lewis Thompson, and William Still. Still recorded what happened when the crate was opened:
The witnesses will never forget that moment. Saw and hatchet quickly had the five hickory hoops cut and the lid off, and the marvelous resurrection of Brown ensued. Rising up in his box, he reached out his hand, saying, "How do you do, Gentlemen?" The little assemblage hardly knew what to think or do at the moment.
From that day on, Brown was known as Henry "Box" Brown because of his clever method of escape. Brown stayed with James and Lucretia Mott and then with William Still in Philadelphia. While living in Still's home, he related all the details of his tale to Still, who incorporated them into the memoirs of his experiences with the Underground Railroad. Eventually, Brown left Philadelphia and went to Boston.
Back in Richmond, Smith tried to send two other fugitive slaves to Philadelphia in a similar manner. Unfortunately, the publicity about Brown's successful escape had alerted the authorities, and the two were caught. Smith was arrested, convicted of aiding runaway slaves, and sentenced to eight years in the penitentiary.
Not all the people living in the North were as sympathetic to the anti-slave movement and the activities of the Underground Railroad as were James Smith or the group who aided runaways in Philadelphia. There were those who thought nothing ill of the institution of slavery. Some informed of the whereabouts of escapees and even participated in the recapture of runaways. These individuals were frequently motivated by the large financial rewards offered for their capture and return.
Even among the white abolitionist groups, there were those who absolutely opposed the operation of the Underground Railroad. They believed in the gradual abolition of slavery as an institution through legal means and thought that aiding slaves in escaping from their masters was immoral and illegal. In the religious arena, not all of the churches in the North, nor all the members of a given congregation, felt the same way about the institution of slavery and aiding runaways.
According to Charles Blockson, many of Pennsylvania's white citizens were sympathetic to the South and the institution of slavery, but an even greater number were apathetic toward the plight of slaves and those attempting to flee. Many incidents of fugitives being aided by Underground Railroad agents took place in front of whites who simply did not care enough to assist them or to notify the authorities or help capture the runaways.
A myth that has developed over the years is that white people, and especially Quakers, were solely responsible for the success of the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania. There is ample evidence in the original source material, especially in the writings of William Still and Robert Smedley, that blacks played an important role in the success of the railroad. Blockson's research goes even further and shows that in many cases, fugitives were able to reach safe havens due solely to the efforts of fellow blacks. Finally, while many of the fugitives depended on others to help them along the way, a good number of slaves relied completely on their own wits and were not aided by anyone.
The passage of the fugitive slave laws, the hostility of many whites in the North, and even the disagreements among the abolitionists and church leaders all led to the necessity of secrecy surrounding the workings of the Underground Railroad. This secrecy is a major reason why researching the railroad is so difficult. The number of primary sources is limited, and the almost mythological nature of the railroad colors the secondary source material. However, careful sifting of the sources, physical inspection of the existing sites, knowledge of the terrain and geographic features along a suspected route, and a heavy dose of logical speculation can provide a fairly accurate picture of the Underground Railroad in a given area. Those are the factors on which the assumptions in this book are made.
The history of blacks in this country dates back to the earliest days of the Colonial period. They made their appearance in 1619 when twenty captured Africans were sold to the English colonists at Jamestown. This trade in human beings from Africa continued throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and that factor, coupled with natural reproductive rates, resulted in the population of blacks increasing to 757,208 by 1790. Of this number, 697,681 were slaves and 59,527 were free. The population of white Americans, at the same time, was 3,172,006. Just prior to the onset of the Civil War in 1860, these numbers had increased to 26,923,000 whites and 3,953,760 enslaved blacks, or almost 13 percent of the total population of the country. Of these, 3,838,765 were enslaved in the South. Most of the 488,370 Free blacks lived in the North. Pennsylvania exhibited an opposite trend during approximately the same time period. In the census of 1790, 3,737 blacks were listed as enslaved in the state and 6,500 were listed as free. By 1860, the number of slaves appears as zero in the state census and the number of free blacks as 57,000.
Many in the North became convinced of the evils of slavery and actively worked to put an end to the institution. The earliest evidence of this effort comes from Germantown, Pennsylvania. On February 18, 1688, a group of men with strong religious convictionsGarret Hendrick, Daniel D. Pastorius, and the brothers Derick and Abram op de Graeffpublished a document entitled The Resolutions of the Germantown Mennonites. In this manifesto, they roundly condemned slavery and made a religious argument for the freedom of all people from bondage. The sentiments expressed would go on to establish the basic reasons for the abolition of slavery in America. They included the following:
1. Since the Moslem Turks sell people into slavery, is it not worse for Christians to do it?
2. Just because these people are black in skin color, that is no reason to enslave them.
3. The mentioning of the Biblical dictum "... that we should do to all men as we will be done to ourselves ..." followed by the question "... would we enslave whites?"
4. In Europe people are oppressed for the sake of their beliefs, here it is because of their color.
5. The Bible says that we should not commit adultery, and yet, when wives are forcefully separated from their husbands in slavery and given to others, is this not encouraging adultery?
6. It is unlawful to steal, and yet, these people were stolen from their native country.
The Quakers were also pioneers in the early movement to abolish slavery in America. In 1693, the Quaker George Keith printed a pamphlet that argued against slavery. The pamphlet was circulated throughout the colonies. This antislavery sentiment among the Quakers continued to develop, and in 1754, at the yearly meeting of the Friends, the group publicly condemned slavery as an institution and many of them freed what slaves they had.
As the colonies neared the eve of their independence from Great Britain, others, in addition to the Quakers and Mennonites, were morally distressed by the fact of slavery. Individuals began to meet to discuss the evils of the practice and make plans to bring about its demise, or at least to help slaves gain their freedom. Once again, Pennsylvania was the site of an early effort to organize opposition in a formal way to slavery. The first abolitionist society in America, called the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, began in Philadelphia in the year 1775. Over the years, people came to refer to it as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.
Opposition to slavery in this country involved two major initiatives in the years during the American Revolution and shortly thereafter. The first of these dealt with the changing of laws. Legislation was enacted in various forms to curtail the practice, at least in the North. Several of the newly formed states either made antislavery laws part of their new constitutions or enacted separate legislation that banned slavery immediately or arranged for its gradual elimination. Vermont in 1777, Massachusetts in 1781, New York in 1799, Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1799, and New Jersey in 1804 changed their constitutions or formulated new laws that banned the institution.
In Pennsylvania, the state legislature passed a law on February 29, 1780, designed to abolish slavery over a period of time. Called the Gradual Abolition of Slavery Act, the law contained a number of provisions to bring about an ultimate end to the practice of enslaving others in the state. The first of these provisions held that no child born in Pennsylvania would be a slave.
Excerpted from Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania by William J. Switala. Copyright © 2001 by Stackpole Books. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.