When Special Delivery Meant Deliverance for a Fugitive Slave

The box that arrived in Philadelphia that day was the plain-looking sort typically used to transport dry goods. Just over 3 feet long, it was 2 feet 8 inches deep and not quite 2 feet wide. Written on the side were the words “this side up with care.’’

Safe to say, the recipient of the box was not fully prepared for what was inside: a 200-pound man named Henry Brown.

As an African-American living in the South, Mr. Brown was a slave when he left Virginia on March 23, 1849, concealed in the box he had designed for this purpose.

When he arrived in Pennsylvania a day later, by express mail, he was a free man.

Having himself shipped as if he were an order of dry goods was an audacious act to those eager to strike a blow against slavery. Yet, the story of Mr. Brown’s flight from slavery — several hours of which he endured upside down — never quite earned the recognition it deserved.

His is hardly a household name, and even the circumstances of his death have been lost to history. “I’ve never been able to find an obituary,’’ said Jeffrey Ruggles, a curator at the Virginia Historical Society who wrote one of the few treatise-length books on the topic, “The Unboxing of Henry Brown,’’ in 2003.

Civil rights leaders no doubt found Mr. Brown’s moxie inspiring, but some feared that publicity would only make it harder for other slaves to follow the same path to freedom....

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