Henry “Box” Brown paid a dear price for his nickname.
Born a slave on a Richmond, Virginia plantation, Henry began plotting his escape when his wife and three young children, having been sold to another slave owner, were carried away in chains.
After pondering on it, he had a carpenter build his escape vessel: a wood crate three feet, one inch wide by two feet, six inches high.
At five feet, six inches tall, Henry would have to cramp into the fetal position for the twenty-some hours it would take for the crate to reach the North via railcar.
He lowered himself inside and a friend nailed the box shut, with only a few biscuits to sustain Henry on the journey. Henry’s friend carried the box to the express office.
Although the box explicitly said THIS SIDE UP WITH CARE, it was placed upside down, leaving Brown sitting on his head.
The box was then transported to the train depot and thrown into the baggage car where, thankfully, it landed right side up.
But when it was transferred to a steamboat, Henry found himself on his head again.
He was in agony, but he dared not utter a sound. He prayed and waited to die.
He was saved when some workers turned his box over to sit and rest on it.
The box arrived at a depot in Washington, then was placed on a railcar in Philadelphia, arriving at three a.m. on the morning of March 30, 1849.
Henry had been doubled up in the box for twenty-six hours.
A man picked up the box and carried it to an office on North Fifth Street, where a group of abolitionists awaited. They locked the door behind them.
Fearing the worst, one of the men said, Let us rap upon the box and see if he is alive.
Someone tapped on the side.
Is all right within? a trembling voice asked.
All right, Brown replied.
Brown was free, and he carried his nickname as a badge of honor through the rest of his life.
Today, we’re not subject to slave masters with chains and whips.
But we’re all held captive in self-imposed boxes of various forms. We all have limitations holding us back from becoming who we were born to become.
We suffer in jobs we hate, we fall prey to addictions, we live scripted lives, we allow other people to dictate our reactions and emotions, we consume processed junk and get sick and fat, we rack up credit card debt.
Questions for all of us to ponder:
- Do I know what is holding me captive and constraining my potential? (Consider this list of possibilities.)
- What am I willing to do to break free?
- Is my vision of a better life stronger than my fear of doing what it takes to achieve that life?
- What one thing in my life, if eliminated, would catalyze major positive change?
- What one good habit could I cultivate that would forever alter the destination, trajectory, and velocity of my life?
Today, we don’t have to escape slavery by railcar stuffed in boxes. We have to escape our personal boxes of captivity by watching less TV and reading more good books, cutting up our credit cards, conquering addictions, following promptings to start purposeful businesses, eating less junk and more raw and natural foods, exercising daily, praying more, forgiving more.
Our political freedom was bought with a price. But we still have to pay a price in our own life to be spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically, and financially free.
Unfortunately, human nature works against us. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence,
“…all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
Whether we stay stuck in our boxes, held captive by our fears, weaknesses, habits, and false beliefs, or pay the price to break free — either choice involves suffering, each comes with a cost.
But which is more sufferable? Which will last longer? Which cost is ultimately easier to bear? Which form of suffering is worthy of our heritage and potential?
Henry Brown was enslaved. We have no one to blame but ourselves for the things holding us captive.
Henry Brown stuffed himself into a tiny box to gain his freedom. Are you willing to break free from your box to gain your freedom?
*The story of Henry “Box” Brown is told in the book The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.