History September 09, 2021 at 12:00 pm

The resilient story of Lear Green, who escaped slavery in an old wooden sailor’s chest

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor September 09, 2021 at 12:00 pm

September 09, 2021 at 12:00 pm | History

Lear Green escaping in her wooden chest. Illustration from The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, Etc. by William Still, 1872. New York Public Library Digital Collections

Although many have heard of the story of Henry ‘Box’ Brown, who mailed himself to freedom in a wooden box, Lear Green’s story is rarely known. Green was an enslaved young woman who made one of the most innovative and daring escapes in history to marry the man she loved. Green was able to escape from her slaveholder, James Noble, in an old wooden sailor’s chest in a long and difficult steamship voyage from Baltimore to Philadelphia.

Slaveholder and butter dealer Noble had “inherited” Green from his mother-in-law. Green, born in 1839, was in her teens when she fell in love with a free Black man, William Adams, who asked her to marry him. Green initially refused because she did not want her children to be born into slavery. “How can I perform the duties of wife and mother while burdened by the shackles of slavery?” Green reportedly asked Adams.

But Green later changed her mind after Adams and his mother, also a free woman, came up with a plan for her to escape. Green, who was now determined to escape the oppression of slavery, purchased an old sailor’s chest and placed various items in it, including “a quilt, a pillow, and a few articles of raiment, with a small quantity of food and a bottle of water.”

Her fiance Adams and his mother fastened the chest with heavy rope, with Green cramped inside. Adam’s mother boarded an Ericsson steamboat in Baltimore and brought the chest with her. The chest was secured with rope and stowed with other freight. During the 18-hour journey to Philadelphia, Adams’ mother snuck into the compartment and from time to time lifted the lid of the chest to check in on Green and allow her a breath of fresh air.

After 18 hours in the chest, the ship arrived in Philadelphia. Green would meet with Underground Railroad conductor William Still before making her way further North to marry Adams and move to Canada. As expected, Green’s slaveowner Noble named her a fugitive slave, and a manhunt was launched to bring her back. Noble reportedly posted an advertisement of her escape, which read as follows:

“$150 REWARD. Ran away from the subscriber, on Sunday night, 27th inst., my NEGRO GIRL, Lear Green_about 18 years of age, black complexion, round featured, good looking and ordinary size… I have reason to be confident that she was persuaded by a negro man named Wm Adams…he had heard to say he was going to marry the above girl.”

Indeed, Green and Adams married and settled in Elmira, New York. But their joy together was short-lived. After three years of marriage, Green suddenly died at the age of 21 for unknown reasons.

For many people, the disturbing history of the slave trade brings to mind the horrifying experiences enslaved Africans had to go through while working on plantations in the Americas and other parts of the world. Africans were, for centuries, captured and chained down, forced onto ships and taken into new lands against their will. Some even died before getting to their new homes due to the awful experiences on the ships.

For those who survived, it was the start of several hours of work on large plantations with little to eat and with never having to forget their status as property. But the slaves did not simply accept their fate without protest. Slave rebellions were at the time known, while others like Green risked it all to escape to freedom in some daring and ingenious ways.

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