The Slave Who Mailed Himself to Freedom

(February 12, 2019)

In March 1849, a slave in his mid-thirties paid $86 of his saved tobacconist money to ship a 3-foot by 2-foot crate from his master’s home in Richmond, Virginia, to Philadelphia. The box was lined with coarse woolen cloth, contained a small hole on one side, and traveled by wagon, railroad, and steamboat.

Twenty-seven hours later, when abolitionist Passmore Williamson and the rest of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee received the box at Williams’s office, the slave himself jumped out, reportedly said, “How do you do, gentlemen?” and broke into song.

The tale of Henry Box Brown has delighted and mystified Americans for more than 150 years. A true revolutionary, Brown didn’t fit the contemporaneous mold of an emancipated slave. He spent his free life performing, re-enacting his escape, and creating spectacle shows of magic and hypnotism that amused fans and alarmed critics, including storied abolitionists of the time.

Now, professor of English and Africana studies Martha Cutter will delve into the life and performance of this storied man with a 2019 National Endowment for the Humanities grant. She will use the $60,000 award, titled “The Lives and Afterlives of Henry Box Brown, the Slave Who Mailed Himself to Freedom,” to investigate the life of the man who, as she writes, “disrespected boundaries, not only between free and enslaved, but between high art and low.”

Her work will culminate in the first comprehensive assessment of Brown’s unique persona and his impact on the anti-slavery movement. She will also analyze what she terms the “afterlife” of Brown  – his representation by contemporary African American artists such as Glen Ligon, Wilmer Wilson, and Pat Ward Williams.

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