Location: American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
Title of Song: Old Bob Ridley!
Year & Place: Circa 1855. Philadelphia, PA
Collection/Call Number/Copies: bsvg200857
American Sheet Music Item#: bsvg200857
Four crudely engraved black performers comprise this illustrated broadside from the antebellum period. An animated dancer and three musicians (on banjo, fiddle, and tambourine) give form to the rendering of the adjacent lyrics about the former plantation-bound and enslaved “Bob Ridley” who has come to Philadelphia for an “education.”
Engravings such as this one “ventriloquize” blackface, visually narrativizing with little or no extra-pictorial matter what one experienced in the performance. The artistic narrative on display here really isn’t Bob Ridley’s story; rather, it’s the blackface performance tradition of simplistic songs, racial mockery, and corporeal catharsis in raw graphic terms.
Henry “Box” Brown (1815-1879)
Henry “Box” Brown was a slave who escaped to freedom in 1849 by arranging to have himself mailed to Philadelphia abolitionists in a dry goods container. Born into slavery in Virginia, Brown was sent to Richmond in 1830 to work in a tobacco factory. There, he married another slave, and the couple had three children.
With the help of James C. A. Smith, and a sympathetic white storekeeper named Samuel Smith, Brown devised his escape plan. Brown paid $86 (out of his savings of $166) to Smith, who contacted Philadelphia abolitionist James Miller McKim, who agreed to receive the box. During the trip, which began on March 29, 1849, Brown’s box traveled by wagon, then railroad, steamboat, wagon again, railroad, ferry, railroad, and finally delivery wagon. Several times during the 27-hour journey, workers placed the box upside-down or handled it roughly, but Brown was able to remain still enough to avoid detection. The box containing Brown was received by McKim, black abolitionist William Still, and other members of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee. When Brown was released, one of those present remembered his first words as “How do you do, gentlemen?” He then sang a psalm from the Bible he had previously selected for his moment of freedom.
He published two versions of his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown; first in Boston in 1849 and the second in England in 1851. Brown exhibited a moving panorama titled “Mirror of Slavery” in the northeastern United States until he was forced to move to England after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Brown toured Britain with his antislavery panorama for the next 10 years, performing several hundred times a year and visiting virtually every town and city over that period.
Brown stayed on the British show circuit for 25 years, until 1875. Leaving his first wife and children in slavery, he married a second time, to a white British woman, and began a new family. In 1875, he returned to the U.S. with a family magic act. The cause and date of his death are unknown.