Henry “Box” Brown contorted himself to fit inside the 3-by-3 foot cargo box with only a bladder of water and a hand drill in case he needed holes for air. The box was loaded onto a train headed north. He was hoping to set himself free.
After mailing himself to Pennsylvania in 1849, Brown continued to advocate for abolition, later living in England and Toronto as a speaker and touring musician.
Jonathan Goldman, chief curator at the B&O Railroad Museum, figured Brown’s journey to freedom brought him through Baltimore. The only train from the south to Washington D.C. was the B&O, so therefore if Brown took the train to Washington, he may have continued on to Baltimore.
But that was not enough to build an exhibit.
“Every single thing needed to have documentation to support it,” Goldman said.
Goldman and museum archivist Anna Kresmer had to get to work.
They decided to conduct their research as a part of the museum’s application to join the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom — a program that highlights the Underground Railroad, a network of people, routes and safe houses that helped enslaved people escape bondage.
Some seeking their freedom, like Brown, used the actual railroad.
Kresmer and Goldman began their research in the early days of 2020, and due to COVID-19, most of the archives they used were closed to the public. Typically, researchers travel to archives and spend time going through artifacts themselves. This time, Kresmer and Goldman were only using digitized artifacts.
With limited artifacts from external archives and the B&O’s extensive collection, the team was able to find 27 people who came through the B&O to go north toward freedom.
“We hope to find even more information as archives open up,” said Kresmer, noting that the 27 freedom seekers they identified may be just the tip of the iceberg.
The National Park Service designates sites as a part of the Network to Freedom on a semiannual basis. Kresmer and Goldman submitted their application in July 2021, and heard of its acceptance in September 2021. Being a part of the network allows them to connect with other sites, as well as receive grant money from the NPS.
The resulting exhibit, “The Underground Railroad: Freedom Seekers on the B&O Railroad,” is the first Network to Freedom site to focus on the physical railroad’s participation in the Underground Railroad, according to museum director Kris Hoellen.
Visitors to the historic site are presented with the experience of riding a train in the 19th century. The Mount Clare Station building, which was constructed in 1851, was where many people got their tickets and waited for their train, so the museum did its best to restore the building to its original style.
The ticket booth is the exact same one many freedom seekers used to get tickets to travel north. The rooms of the exhibit are assumed to be the women’s and men’s waiting rooms.
Notably, no Black person could ride the train without presenting their freedom papers or being accompanied by a “responsible white person” who could vouch for them. The museum has an original freedom paper on display next to a flow chart that asks “Could you buy a ticket?” showing visitors how difficult it was for a Black person.
As the researchers built their case for the National Park Service, they were also learning more about the language of the Underground Railroad to tell the story to modern visitors. For example, “cargo” may have referred to a freedom seeker who is using the trains; a “conductor” was someone helping them through the Underground Railroad.
They also found a song that Henry “Box” Brown wrote using an old minstrel tune that told of his journey in the cargo crate. Minstrelsy was used to make racist caricatures of Black people, and Brown repurposed the song to tell of his escape. The B&O worked with the Howard University choir, Afro Blue, to re-create the song for the exhibit.
The final room of the exhibit features an immersive piece using projectors to play Brown’s song along with animation to show how he must have traveled in the box. The projections also retell the story of William and Ellen Craft.
Ellen Craft, a woman light enough to pass as white, posed as an enslaver to buy her husband a ticket on the train.
Projections created by the firm RLMG in Massachusetts cover every wall of the room and feature animations and narrations about the Crafts’ journey. RLMG also created a large touch screen that collates the research to show the routes of each of the freedom seekers.
Lots of support went into completing this exhibit. The Maryland State Archives was a huge resource, as well as Howard University and Coppin State University.
Goldman and Kresmer’s research is ongoing. As the museum gears up to to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the railroad in 2027, they hope the digital portions of the exhibit will be continually updated as new documentation emerges.
They both say they have been deeply affected by their research.
“I learned so much more about Black history … my whole conception changed as I researched for this exhibit,” Goldman said.
Ultimately, the goal with this exhibit is to remind people about Baltimore’s unique history.
“I believe it should be a huge point of civic pride for Baltimoreans because the railroad began right here,” Hoellen said. “The tracks in our parking lot are some of the original tracks where people traveled.”
Correction: Ellen Craft was enslaved when she rode the B&O Railroad with her husband William.