Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Henry Box Brown - The First FedX'er

The box that arrived in Philadelphia that day was the plain-looking sort typically used to transport dry goods. Just over 3 feet long, it was 2 feet 8 inches deep and not quite 2 feet wide. Written on the side were the words “this side up with care.’’ Safe to say, the recipient of the box was not fully prepared for what was inside: a 200-pound man named Henry Brown.

As an African-American living in the South, Mr. Brown was a slave when he left Virginia on March 23, 1849, concealed in the box he had designed for this purpose.

When he arrived in Pennsylvania a day later, by express mail, he was a free man.Having himself shipped as if he were an order of dry goods was an audacious act to those eager to strike a blow against slavery. Yet, the story of Mr. Brown’s flight from slavery — several hours of which he endured upside down — never quite earned the recognition it deserved.

His is hardly a household name, and even the circumstances of his death have been lost to history. “I’ve never been able to find an obituary,’’ said Jeffrey Ruggles, a curator at the Virginia Historical Society who wrote one of the few treatise-length books on the topic, “The Unboxing of Henry Brown,’’ in 2003.

Civil rights leaders no doubt found Mr. Brown’s moxie inspiring, but some feared that publicity would only make it harder for other slaves to follow the same path to freedom.

A Flight to Freedom
An eye-witness account from the man who opened a box and found a human being inside. FOLLOW THIS LINE TO Annotated Letter and Other Records »

Certainly, that was true of James Miller McKim, the man who accepted delivery of the box. He shared a dramatic account of the event with a confidante, but urged him to keep it quiet. “And now I have one request for Heaven’s sake don’t publish this affair or allow it to be published,’’ Mr. McKim wrote, warning that it might “prevent all others from escaping in the same way.’’

To help correct this century-old oversight, the New-York Historical Society has made available to The New York Times, in celebration of Black History Month, its copy of the account that Mr. McKim wrote within days of Mr. Brown’s stepping out of the box and into his life.

“He came to me on Saturday morning last in a box tightly hooped, marked ‘this side up’ by overland express, from the city of Richmond!!’’ Mr. McKim wrote an associate in New York named Sydney Howard Gay. “Did you ever hear of any thing in your life to beat that? Nothing that was done on the Barricades of Paris exceeded this cool and deliberate intrepidity.’’

The letter, which you can read here or at the society’s library on 170 Central Park West, goes on to describe how Mr. Brown spent 27 grim hours entombed in a tight-fitting box that was tossed and turned repeatedly during the 350-mile journey.

Upside down at one point in a noisy freight car, Mr. Brown was able to shift enough to relieve the pressure on his head. But when it happened again on the steamboat ride, passengers were too close. He had to remain still for 20 miles or face detection. “This nearly killed him,” Mr. McKim reported.

To assure speedy delivery, Mr. Brown’s accomplices had hired Adams Express, a private shipper that promised next-day delivery from Richmond to Philadelphia.

Mr. McKim, a Philadelphia abolitionist whose son Charles became the noted New York architect, had agreed to accept delivery. But after one too many delays, he was fairly sure that any man transported in this manner would not have survived. He wrote that he could hardly “describe my sensations when in answer to my rap on the box and question – ‘all right?’ the prompt response came ‘all right sir.’ ”

As Mr. Brown later recounted in published narratives of his life, he continued on to Boston, adopted the middle name “Box” as a reminder of his ordeal and turned his deliverance from the box into something of a theatrical spectacle.

Mr. Ruggles said, “The good thing about that McKim letter was it was so early on, it is before Brown enhanced the story or improved it.’’

And while Mr. Brown’s tale thrilled the antislavery crowd and got picked up by some newspapers, Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, decried those who had publicized details about the escape, making it unlikely that anyone else could replicate it.

Twice more, in fact, Mr. Brown’s accomplices in Richmond tried to ship human “cargo,” but failed, according to Mr. Ruggles. Alerted by the publicity, Adams Express had warned its agents to be “suspicious of boxes that emitted grunts” and “the two slaves on the second expedition were not as stoic as Henry Brown and gave out little noises.’’

It was not long before Mr. Brown was also back on the run. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had put him at heightened risk of being apprehended as a runaway slave. So he embarked for England later that year.

He was described as a “lodger” on this British census form the following March, as was James C.A. Smith, one of his accomplices from Richmond. He and Mr. Smith are each listed as an “antislavery advocate” on the form.

A ship manifest from 1875, archived at Ancestry.com, records a Henry Brown returning to the United States after the Civil War – this time, not as human cargo, but as something even more precious: a passenger.

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