The celebration of Black History Month was born from the vision of Carter G. Woodson, known as “the father of black history”.
Woodson believed, “If a race has no history, it has no valid tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thinking of the world, and it risks being exterminated.” Appalled by the lack of attention given to how African Americans have shaped history, Woodson and his colleague Jesse E. Moorland in 1915 founded the Association for the Study of Black Life, now l Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
Just over a decade later, in 1926, Woodson launched “Black History Week” to celebrate and raise awareness of the contributions of African Americans from all walks of life. Woodson led the development of lesson plans that were distributed to K-12 schools across the country, and fifty years later, in our country’s bicentennial year, President Gerald Ford declared Black History Month a national observance, stating “we can seize the opportunity to honor the all too often overlooked accomplishments of Black Americans in all walks of life throughout our history.
Among the often overlooked stories of everyday African Americans is the fascinating story of Henry “Box” Brown, a frequent visitor to the Northeast Kingdom. A contemporary of Frederick Douglass and Harriett Tubman, who like them escaped from slavery, Brown found his way back to freedom on March 29, 1849 by sending himself from Richmond, Virginia, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in a crate 12 cubic feet. Carrying only a small awl to poke holes if necessary, a few crackers and a tiny vial of water, Brown endured 27 hours of confinement in a box just two feet and six inches high, with three tiny air holes. . Nonetheless, Brown emerged from his harrowing journey singing psalms of thanksgiving.
Brown’s daring escape took place following the sale of his pregnant first wife, Nancy, and their three children by a slaver who extorted money from Brown in exchange for keeping his family together. This devastating loss inspired Brown’s attempt to break the shackles of bondage, and with the help of Samuel A. Smith, a white cobbler, and James CA Smith, a free black, he dispatched himself using Adams Express via wagon, rail and steamer for Passmore Williamson, Quaker merchant and abolitionist. The Philadelphia Vigilance Committee arranged for Brown’s safe passage to New York City, where members of the Underground Railroad ensured Brown’s move to New Bedford, Mass.
News of Brown’s trip spread quickly, and on April 12, 1849, less than two weeks after Brown’s regained freedom, Vermont’s Burlington Courier published a version of his story titled “Wonderful Escape of a Slave”. According to the report, which was immediately picked up by several other newspapers:
After organizing the preliminaries, he [the enslaved man] paid someone $40 to wrap it up and mark it “this side up, with care” and take it to the Express office consigned to his friend up north. On the way, being on board a steamer, he was accidentally turned down and nearly died with a bloody rash at his hearing. At the next transport change, however, he was turned upright and, after twenty-six hours in confinement, arrived safely at his destination. Upon receiving the box, the man… wondered whether he should receive a corpse or a free man. He tapped lightly on the box, with the question, ‘Okay?’ And I was delighted to hear ‘Very well, sir.’ The poor boy was immediately freed from his burial place alive and sent to a worthy abolitionist in a town in New England, where he is now.
With her story now public, Brown began appearing at abolitionist meetings in Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and New York. He was eager to correct mistakes and recount the experience in his own words. Abolitionist Charles Stearns convinced Brown to turn his adventures into a book, which Stearns would write, and Henry Box Brown’s account was printed in September 1849. Plates and lithographs illustrating the now infamous escape soon began to appear, and within a year Brown had developed a full theatrical presentation, which included a moving panorama of 49 scenes. A new production titled “Henry Box Brown’s Mirror of Slavery” opened in Boston on April 11, 1850.
But in October, Brown had set sail for England, following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, demanding the return of those who had escaped slavery, under the threat of a fine of one thousand dollars. After he was badly beaten in August during a kidnapping attempt in Providence, Brown’s friends encouraged the move. Abroad, his anti-slavery productions shifted from song and theater to magic and mesmerism. Brown’s performances frequently involved re-enacting his unboxing and other acts of escapism from bags and chains. But due to criticism of his failure to redeem his family when he had the chance, he remarried a white Cornish woman. He began to reduce the emphasis on abolitionist content and focus more on magic tricks and forms of hypnotism. Ads began to describe Brown as the “king of all hypnotists and teacher of magic”, and off stage he blurred the lines between theater and reality, walking the streets of London dressed as an African prince and carrying a sword. . In 1851 he published his version of his life story, subtitled “Written by Himself”, which contained more of his authentic voice.
When Brown returned to the United States in 1875, his fame as one of the first and most brilliant black magicians grew. Indeed, legendary magician Harry Houdini followed Brown with fascination, collecting posters of his shows, housed in the Harry Ransom Center collection at the University of Texas-Austin. A program of an 1878 Rhode Island performance details such acts as “destroy and restore a handkerchief, an astonishing feat with the sword and cards, the marvelous feat of the flying card and box, burning cards and restore them, the most wonderful and mysterious doll, the inexhaustible hats, the wonderful experience of running a watch through several boxes, the extraordinary feat of making money fly, the inexhaustible pan, the instant growth of flowers, enchanted glass, etc., etc. The poster also promises that Brown will expose the secrets of alleged acts of spiritualism, which Houdini was particularly interested in.
Brown performed similar acts the following year when he returned to Vermont for a series of performances that included shows at Island Pond, a major railroad center, School House Hall in Proctorsville, and Union Hall in Montpelier. A second series of appearances for mayor of Montpelier in 1880 attracted a small audience but received favorable reviews, saying that “the head of the family, H. Box Brown is a colored gentleman of courteous manners, good-natured demeanor and to distinguished appearance, while the other members ruled themselves as all good citizens should, and put on a show that had merit in it all.
In his story, My Bondage and My Freedom, Frederick Douglass criticized Brown for divulging the details of his escape, which prevented others from enjoying the same route, and elsewhere for Brown’s ostentatious performances. But there was special significance to Brown’s subversive tactics that empowered black people by offering hope through acts of resistance. Serving as a trickster, theatrically controlling white people by hypnotizing their minds, and as a conjurer who proudly displayed his African heritage, Brown turned the script on those who had oppressed him and on leading black abolitionists. Refusing to be confined to the box built by tradition, Brown’s resurrection and transformation serve as a reminder of how racial progress in the United States happened in various unexpected ways, and that Vermont was part of that untold story.
Spencer Kuchle is associate director of collections and interpretation at the Old Stone House Museum & Historic Village.