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Signed, Sealed, Delivered: The Innovative Escape of Henry "Box" Brown

During summer breaks, it was my mother’s custom to take my sisters and me to the local library. We considered this a strange and inconsiderate practice, passionately protesting against its continuance. Yet Mom insisted that learning was never on break. Looking back, I’m grateful for this life lesson.

Our weekly assignments were developmental and straightforward. We selected at least three books, each needing her clearance before checkout. In addition to these, she reserved the right to add one book of her choosing. Two books covered school related topics, one an interest of our own, and one a Black History theme, figure, or event.

It seems like yesterday I was holding a thin, paperback book with cartoon drawings of people who looked like me. Within, I became acquainted with Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks. Mom determined to keep Black History before us, considering it a risk to limit our learning to what we received at school. Her early emphasis on the stony roads trod by our forefathers and the God who sustained them ignited an ever-growing flame of interest.

Perhaps you too were introduced to the famed legacies of widely known figures such as Dred Scott, Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and the Birmingham Four. Over the years, we’ve discovered other phenomenal stories of freedom fights and freedom flights. Which are your favorites? One of mine recounts the innovative escape of Henry Brown.

Henry Brown was born a slave in Louisa County, Virginia. Brown was highly discontent with his lot in life. Surely the hand he’d been dealt was far from God’s ideal. No individual, regardless of color, should be considered less than human and, therefore, subjected to oppressive conditions and inhumane treatment. Although he did not know how it would be acquired, Brown believed freedom was his inherent right.

Tragedy struck home and heart, when Brown’s wife Nancy and three children were sold by their spiteful master. The scathing pain of separation surpassed that of any rod or whip. It was this grave insult to the integrity of a man’s family that led Brown to pursue freedom’s door by any means necessary.

Attributing the novel idea to divine inspiration, he resolved to mail himself to freedom.

Securing the confidential assistance of a free black man and a local white shoemaker, both sympathetic to his cause, as well as the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society (PASS), Brown was ready to ship. To delay inevitable suspicion surrounding his future absence, Brown needed a reason to be excused from labor. So, he used sulfuric acid to burn his finger. Disgusted by the sight, his overseer shooed him home and became an inadvertent accomplice to Brown’s flight. Won’t God do it?

On March 23, 1849, Brown was nailed inside a box 3 feet long, 2 feet 8 inches deep, and 2 feet wide. Having a small hole for air and a bit of water and biscuits, Brown endured literal ups and downs. Twenty-seven hours later, the wooden box marked “dry goods” was opened by members of PASS. “How do you do, gentlemen?” Brown emerged. Filling his lungs with freedom’s air, he broke into joyful chorus, singing an arrangement of Psalm 40. I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined unto me, and heard my cry. Finally, Henry “Box” Brown was free.

“He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.” Psalm 40:2

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