In the mid-nineteenth century a house slave or a slave in town was more likely to learn to read and write than was a slave in the fields, just as a house slave or a slave in town also had more chances for escape. Literacy, like light skin when it came to devising disguises, aided in escapes. Slaves who could read could not only keep track of the wanted posters and newspaper advertisements concerning fugitives, in some cases they could also write their own passes and any authorities they met along the road would be slow to suspect a slave of being the author of his or her own freedom. One valiant woman, before escaping disguised as a sailor, hid in her grandmother’s cramped attic storeroom for seven years, but in the meantime convinced her masters that she had already fled by getting a letter of hers smuggled out by ship to New York, after which it was mailed back to Virginia.
Most of the self-liberated went on foot, at night. Not all escaped by sea or Underground Railroad to the North or to Canada, following the intrepid Harriet Tubman or the North Star of the sorrow songs, the spirituals. Uncounted numbers slipped away to Mexico. But Henry “Box” Brown is probably the only enslaved person who ever mailed himself to freedom:
The idea suddenly flashed across my mind of shutting myself up in a box and getting myself conveyed as dry goods to a free state.
In 1849, Brown, with help from a local storekeeper and a doctor, concealed himself inside a baize-lined wooden container that was three feet one inch long, two feet six inches high, and two feet wide (Brown was 5‘8”). The box was then placed on a train for the twenty-seven-hour journey from Richmond, Virginia, to Philadelphia, where it was taken to the city’s Anti-Slavery Committee and opened. Brown emerged, drank a glass of water, and sang the Fortieth Psalm, a free man and a celebrity.
Just as many instances of resistance on the plantations have not come down to us, so, too, most tales of escape will never be known, because most of the enslaved black people who “stole” themselves did not write their stories or tell their stories to others who then wrote them down. But the Library of Congress does have about seven thousand narratives of very different lengths, and Richard Newman estimates that between A Narrative of the Unknown Sufferings and Surprising Deliverance of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man (1760) and Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901), some two hundred slaves and former slaves published their stories. “The fugitives we know are remembered primarily through their published narratives,” Newman tells us in his excellent introduction to his edition of Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown.
Brown was one of those fugitives who couldn’t read or write. Consequently, the first version of his autobiography, published the same year as his escape, is “highly flawed …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.