Hope and a Wooden Crate: A Slave’s Journey to Freedom

By Ginger Young, Executive Director

This article will run in the “We Are Durham” section of the Durham Herald-Sun on Sunday, September 18.

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Henry Brown had had enough of being enslaved.

Born into slavery in Virginia in 1816, Brown had worked in a tobacco factory since he was 15. By the time he was 33, he had a wife and three children, also all slaves. When his owner sold his pregnant wife and children to another slaveowner, it was more than Brown could bear.

His emotional heartbreak joined forces with a rugged determination and spirit of inventiveness – and in March 1849, Brown sealed himself in a wooden crate and had himself shipped to freedom in Philadelphia. The journey was risky, tumultuous, and harrowing – but necessary, as Brown later wrote: “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.”

Although Henry Brown was not subjected to physical violence, his story demonstrates that the cruelty of slavery was every bit as devastating to the heart as it could be on the body. Once he had sprung from his crate a free man, Brown went on to become an abolitionist activist and speaker. He shared his story widely until his death in 1897.

Henry “Box” Brown’s story is one that still deserves to be told today. This Thursday, it will be told, at the Hayti Heritage Center, in a one-man performance by North Carolina playwright and actor Mike Wiley. Entitled “One Noble Journey”, the performance is free to all.

Acclaimed actor and playwright Mike Wiley has spent the last decade fulfilling his mission to bring educational theater to young audiences and communities across the country. In the early days of his career, Wiley found few theatrical resources to shine a light on key events and figures in African-American history. To bring these stories to life, he started his own production company.

Wiley is a member of the Authors’ Circle of Book Harvest (www.bookharvestnc.org), a local nonprofit which collects new and gently used children’s books and places them in the hands and homes of children who need them. Wiley donated this performance to a fundraising event benefiting Book Harvest in 2015. It was purchased by Book Harvest founder Ginger Young, board members Michele Lynn and Trudy Smith, and supporter Jenni Owen. The four women are offering this performance as a gift to the community.

The performance of “One Noble Journey” will take place on Thursday, September 22, at 7:30 pm at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham. The Center is a cultural enrichment and arts education facility that promotes cultural understanding through diverse events, activities and programs that preserve the heritage and embrace the experiences of Americans of African descent.

This performance is appropriate for all ages, though the content will likely resonate most strongly with teens and adults. Tickets are free, but reservations are required because seating is limited.

• HOW: Free tickets for “One Noble Journey” can be reserved at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/one-noble-journey-by-mike-wiley-tickets-27112857286
• WHERE: Hayti Heritage Center, 804 Old Fayetteville Street, Durham.
• WHEN: Thursday, September 22 at 7:30 p.m.
• FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact Book Harvest Executive Director Ginger Young at ginger@bookharvestnc.org.