Unboxed thinking

Everyone applauds thinking outside the box. I like the chess metaphor too, about thinking a few moves ahead of everyone else; that was Henry Ford. When he showed no interest in farming, his father didn’t force him to help on the family farm, instead giving him the freedom to pursue his interest in machinery.

1933 Ford Deluxe, Henry Ford Museum

1933 Ford Deluxe, Henry Ford Museum

You have to give him credit for turning his fascination into a vision for making cars with the scale and efficiency that made them accessible for everyone. It’s a story most everyone in the world probably knows, and the story is certainly well crafted and highly burnished at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Along with the adjacent Greenfield Village, it’s a temple for worship at the altar of American ingenuity and invention, and of Ford (whose well-known white supremacist views are nowhere in sight).

I like museums and amusement parks, and this is a little of both—it’s the Disneyland of Americana for industrial revolution buffs. But it’s also disappointing; I thought I’d learn a lot more about the forces at work in that time, get more than just glimpses and highly-polished artifacts of history. There are some good, strategically placed docents who can tell you about the machine shops, steam engines and round house, glass factory, grist mill and more. And cars—there are lots of cool cars.

Grist Mill, Greenfield Village

Grist Mill, Greenfield Village

But most of these beautifully preserved objects and buildings have no more than a few lines about why it was thought important to conserve them. In some cases it’s self-evident: the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop; reproductions of labs and workshops of Ford’s idol, Thomas Edison. Some are plainly tributes to Henry Ford’s rise: a reproduction of his log schoolhouse; an 1885 brick building housing the clock/jewelry shop he used to frequent, moved here from Detroit. And for some it’s less obvious how they relate to the overall theme, they’re just views into an earlier life and time, preserved more pristinely than they existed in real life: Robert Frost’s house; a saw mill; a covered bridge; a slave cabin.

Slave cabin, Greenfield Village

Slave cabin, Greenfield Village

But aside from the shiny, shallow presentation of our history, one story of creativity stayed with me long after we left: that of a slave named Henry Brown, described in a couple of lines in a slave cabin. With a little more digging I learned he was born in Virginia in 1816, to a slave owner thought to be kindly. At age 33, after his wife and children were sold to a different owner, Henry claimed to have received a vision to mail himself to a place where there were no slaves. “There darted into my mind these words…go get a box, and put yourself in it.”

With the help of a sympathetic white storekeeper, and using $86 of his $166 in savings, he had a box built that was 3’ long by 2’8” deep, and barely 2’ wide. His delivery to a Philadelphia abolitionist began on March 23, 1849, traveling by, in turn: wagon, railroad, steamboat, wagon, railroad, ferry, railroad, and delivery wagon. Through 27 hours of rough handling, he was able to remain still and avoid detection. When he was unpacked, his first words were, “How do you do, gentlemen?” Then he sang a Bible psalm he’d chosen for his first moment of freedom.

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“The Unboxing of Henry Brown”, by Jeffrey Ruggles

Henry Brown adopted the middle name “Box” to commemorate the way he gained this freedom. He knew it was a risk, but as he later said, “If you have never been deprived of your liberty, as I was, you cannot realize the power of that hope of freedom, which was to me indeed, an anchor to the soul both sure and steadfast.”

In spite of some in the abolitionist movement, like Frederick Douglass, who felt Henry’s story should remain secret so others might escape the same way, others thought it would be good publicity, and it came out quickly. People just couldn’t help telling the story. Henry appeared at anti-slavery meetings and was praised by the press for his escape.

The following year, congress passed the Compromise of 1850, the latest in a series of convulsed attempts to heal the split over the expansion of slavery as new states were admitted to the union. With that act, the Fugitive Slave Law permitted slave owners to come into the north to capture escaped slaves, and required northern law enforcement to help them. So Henry went to England, where he continued to give his presentations. He returned to the US in 1875.

Henry "Box" Brown newspaper article

1877 Newspaper article

This uneducated, imaginative man created his own new life. He became an abolitionist circuit speaker and made moving panoramas, big winding painted scrolls, to help him tell the story of his escape and of life in slavery. He also became a showman: an ‘electro-biologist’—a mesmerist in those days—and a magician. Henry “Box” Brown’s leap of imagination to see a box as a vehicle to freedom strikes me as one of the most elemental examples of creativity, comparable in its passion-driven inspiration to any of Edison’s or Ford’s celebrated inventions.


Want to know more about this story? Read “The Unboxing of Henry Brown” by Jeffrey Ruggles, Curator at the Virginia Historical Society.

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