Henry's Freedom Box teaches to Pursue Justice and Freedom
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Henry's Freedom Box teaches to Pursue Justice and Freedom

Book Title: Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad

Author: Ellen Levine

Illustrator: Kadir Nelson

Jewish Value: Pursue Justice,Freedom

Book Summary:

Henry Brown doesn't know how old he is. Nobody keeps records of slaves' birthdays. All the time he dreams about freedom, but that dream seems farther away than ever when he is torn from his family and put to work in a warehouse. Henry grows up and marries, but he is again devastated when his family is sold at the slave market. Then one day, as he lifts a crate at the warehouse, he knows exactly what he must do: He will mail himself to the North. After an arduous journey in the crate, Henry finally has a birthday -- his first day of freedom.

Enduring Understandings:

  • Human beings cannot thrive without freedom and will risk almost anything in the pursuit of freedom. 
  • Individuals have a responsibility to take action and stand up for what is right when they believe the rights of others are being violated.

Essential Questions:

  1. Why are justice and freedom so important in our lives? 
  2. What rights should every person have?  
  3. How can we remember the past and the challenges our ancestors faced in the name of justice? 
  4. What qualities are possessed by those who do what they can to help others?

Be Inspired:The ideas included are offered as starting points as you and your students explore, discover and live the lessons. Be sure to elicit and encourage student and parent participation, consistently reinforcing the value being addressed. Allow lessons to authentically develop and change based on engagement and interests.

Lesson Plan Components

For the educatorJewish Thought, Text, and Traditionsmore

The Torah teaches in the book of Deuteronomy “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof,” literally meaning “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.”  The notion of tzedek tirdof--pursuing justice is a core Jewish value that not only refers to courts and laws, but perhaps more importantly, deals with how we treat others.  The prophet Micah teaches that the idea of “good” is encompassed by the act of seeking justice.  In doing so, one can walk with G-d (Micah 3:1-12).

To pursue justice means that we should live righteously, meaning it is our responsibility to ensure that the needs of others are as important to us as our own.  Furthermore, righteous living involves us acting ethically--to be upright, just, and sincere.  The commentator Nachmanides reminds us that tzedek tirdof challenges us to resolve conflict by compromising and teaches that being righteous is more important than the obligations of law.  What is essential in being righteous and pursuing justice is our ability to act fairly and be inclusive of others.  Because every human being is unique and was created b’tzelem elohim, in G-d’s image, they can make a positive difference and contribute to our world in special ways (Genesis 1:26).

The value of tzedek tirdof lifts up the messages of the prophets who sought justice and fairness for all.  Like the prophets of our Hebrew Bible, we too can question how the world is and what it ought to be.  We can keep Divine expectations for a better world and better people at the center of our relationship with G-d.  Furthermore, no one opinion is of greater importance than the other.  In fact, in examining the phrase “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof,” we learn that the phrase is in the singular.  Therefore, each of us must pursue justice.  When we do so together and act in righteous ways, the pursuit of justice may be fulfilled.  

As Pirke Avot teaches, “You are not required to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.…”  We do not need to complete the task of tzedek tirdof alone, but should do our part in creating a just world.  Our choice, then, is whether or not we should take action.  When we do so, the pursuit of justice comes closer to being fulfilled.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What is the difference between acting ethically each day and specifically pursuing justice, such as by advocating publicly for a specific issue? 
  2. Why is it important to reflect upon our own understanding of right and wrong and good and bad? 
  3. How can you make a difference in your classroom by pursuing justice or fairness for each child’s unique needs? How might you differentiate your curriculum, instruction, and classroom management strategies to exemplify this approach? 
  4. How can you pursue justice--tzedek tirdof on a regular basis and incorporate this value in the classroom?

Jewish every dayIncorporate Jewish Valuesmore

Materials and resourcesmore


  • Copy of Henry s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad 
  • A board and marker


Sharing The Storymore

Introducing The story

Introduce the concept of slavery in the United States and the work of the Underground Railroad. For more information Visit PBS at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/home.html .

  • Ask, “Is there any such thing as a “freedom box?” Draw a large box on the board. Have students describe what a “freedom box? might look like. As they make these suggestions, have them come to the board and make additions to the box. 
  • Ask, “What might be inside a “freedom box??” Discuss what freedoms students have that they would include in a freedom box and list these on the board. (You may wish to discuss the freedoms we as Americans enjoy as written in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights-e.g., freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom to worship as we wish, etc.)
Do a “whip around” by going around the room quickly and have each students complete the phrase, “Freedom is…” (A student may say “pass,” but remember to go back to that student when all the others have responded.)

Ask students to share stories of relatives who came to America in search of freedom and better opportunities.  

On the back cover of the book, the author writes,
“Henry “Box? Brown was one of the Underground Railroad?s most famous runaway slaves. And he had the most ingenious idea…”

Take a Picture Walk (see Appendix) of the book Henry’s Freedom Box, and ask students to determine what Henry’s brilliant idea was.

Reading The Story

Read the story aloud, stopping when appropriate to explore illustrations, address student comments, clarify, predict, and guide their understanding of the story and the values to pursue justice and freedom.  

Explain that Henry’s Freedom Box is based on a true story.

  • Read the book aloud and discuss the following questions: 
  • What is slavery? What does it mean to be a slave?
  • What were some of the things that slaves were not allowed to do?
  • Why do you think slaves weren’t allowed to learn to read? 
  • What do you think is the worst thing about being a slave?
  • Why would Henry risk his life to get to the North?
  • Who helped Henry in his escape? 
  • Why would people risk their lives to help slaves escape, especially when it was against the law? 
  • What would you like to say to the men who helped Henry?
  • Would you consider them to be heroes?
  • What character qualities do those who risk their lives to save the lives of others possess? 

After The Story

Discuss the Jewish principle, “Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue”-Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof.
Give examples from Henry’s Freedom Box that demonstrate this principle. Ask students to describe examples that they have seen in their lives where this principle is observes and to describe places or experiences where this principle was or is neglected. Continue the discussion by adding this Torah quote to the above conversation: “Do not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).

  • What does this mean?
  • Where do you see an example of this in the book?
  • What can you do in school to “not oppress a stranger” (e.g., stand up for someone being bullied, help a new student in your class learn his/her way around the school, etc.)?
Henry Brown adopted the name Henry “Box” Brown to celebrate his journey to freedom. A special picture, “The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia” by Samuel Rowse (1850), recreates the moment when the box was opened and Henry was free. Distribute or display a copy of this picture.

Display or distribute the picture with a caption: “The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia who escaped from Richmond, Va. in a box 3 ft. long, 2 ½ feet deep and 2 ft. wide.” Using rulers, help students cut pieces of yarn and tape them to the floor to give them a sense of the size of the box.

Have students use the Visual Thinking Strategy (see Appendix 1) and discuss the picture. Below the picture, have each student create a caption to answer the question, “What do you think were
Henry?s first words after the box was opened and he discovered he had made it safely to Philadelphia?” ( It was reported that he said, "How do you do, gentlemen?" He then sang a psalm from the Bible selected for his moment of freedom).


Explore, Discover, and More Extension and Reinforcement Activitiesmore

Leaders for Change

Language Arts, Social Studies, Critical Thinking 
Discuss t historical figures, such as Harriet Tubman, Nelson Mandela and Moses, who risked their lives to help others find freedom in drastically different times and situations. What words would students use to describe these men and women? Why would Harriet Tubman be popularly called “The Moses of her People”? What similarities can students find between the efforts, environments and political situation of these people (or other people you or your students find inspiring). Create a graphic organizer that asks students to analyze what is the same and what is different about the underground railroad, South Africa’s fight against apartheid and the exodus from Egypt.

Underground Railroad: A Simulated Journey
Research, Social Studies
Visit the National Geographic website for a simulated journey on the Underground Railroad and read and discuss this together with students. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/railroad/j1.html

Secret Code Quilts
History and Art 
Many children s books describe the story of the Underground railroad and the "conductors," such as Harriet Tubman, the "Moses of her People," who risked their lives to help lead the slaves to freedom. Some of these books also use the motif of quilts to help tell the story; quilts were sewn with secret codes and often placed in windows to guide slaves to "safe houses" where they would be protected.

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt
by Deborah Hopkinson
Aunt Harriet and the Underground Railroad by Faith Ringgold
Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom by Bettye Stroud
Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman by Alan Schroeder and Jerry Pickney.

Constellations and the Road to Freedom
Talk about constellations and the role they played in the Underground Railroad. Since slaves did not have compasses, they used constellations to guide their way, particularly the Big Dipper as a pointer to the North Star. This site has information and activity ideas about this topic: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/railroad/lp2.html#one. As this site points out, this is a good opportunity to reference the spiritual "Follow the Drinking Gourd" since the drinking gourd was the familiar shape slaves used to identify the Big Dipper in the sky. Here s a worksheet students can use to diagram the Big Dipper and Little Dipper:

The Ballad of Henry Box Brown
Drama, Music
Show the following clip to students as an example of history brought to life through music and drama. https://archive.org/details/SDEFINITION-TheBalladOfHenryBoxBrown712 The video features members of the Gemini Ink Dramatic Readers Theater telling the story of Henry Brown through dramatic readings accompanied by music. (Approximately 6 minutes.)

Music Connectionsmore

List of All Songs

“Justice” by ‘Miss’ Emily Aronoff Teck Track #4 From ‘Good Choices’ Volume 2

Inspiration Text

“Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” Deuteronomy 16:20


Ask students to create a commercial to bring attention to a perceived injustice, advocating and suggesting how this problem can be improved. Students can use this song as a soundtrack to their commercial, either using a recording they create of their own voices or the recording from the album.


Sometimes I think you’re hiding
Hearing news stories that are sad
Sometimes I wonder where you are
When I see bullies, I get mad
But then I remember each one of us has a job to do
Justice, I will find you
Justice, we will pursue

We’re gonna find it, We’re gonna create it
Justice for all, We’re gonna’ make it
We’re gonna do what is right to try to make our world more fair
To be righteous people and show how much we do care,

I’m sad when I hear stories from our history
When people who were different were treated unfairly
Some things have gotten better, but there is still more work to do
Justice, I will find you
Justice, I will pursue

It might teaching others how to open up their mind
It might mean speaking up and being the person who reminds
Though we’ve solved some problems, there are problems that are new
Justice, I will find you
Justice, I will pursue

Additional Music Connections

Evidence of Learningmore

Students can explain the concept of Justice.
Students demonstrate an understanding of the importance of freedom and that theme in the story of Passover through retelling and explaining the story.


Encourage families to include their children in the discussion and preparation of a Passover Seder, working together to include the Jewish value of the pursuit of Justice in the observance of the holiday.

literature connectionsmore

TitleAuthorIllustratorBook Summary
Nachshon Who Was Afraid to Swim: A Passover Story* Deborah Bodin CohenJagoYoung Nachshon’s family had been working for the cruel Egyptian Pharaohs for generations. He fears that this will be his destiny, too, but when Moses leads the Jews out of Egypt to the Red Sea, Nachshon gets the chance to overcome his fear of the water—and to realize his dream of freedom. The biblical legend of the brave boy who was the first to step into the sea when the waters parted for Moses will inspire children to examine and deal with some of their own fears.
Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt Deborah HopkinsonJames E. RansomeClara, a young slave, has been separated from her mother and sent to another plantation where she works as a seamstress and dreams of freedom. Based on a true story, Clara uses cloth scraps to create a patchwork map, stitching in what she overhears about an escape route to Canada. Ultimately, Clara does escape, leaving behind the quilt to guide other slaves to freedom.
Under The Quilt Of The Night Deborah HopkinsonJames E. RansomeReaders journey to freedom with a young runaway as she escapes to Canada via the Underground Rail-road. Both the moving oil paintings and verse combine to make readers more aware of the emotional and physical hardships faced by those escaping to freedom.
The Matzah That Papa Brought Home Fran ManushkinNed BittingerBringing cherished Passover traditions to life, a new book by the author of Latkes and Applesauce: A Hanukkah Story includes a short history of the Passover story, lively illustrations, cumulative verse, and an explanation of holiday symbols.
Mrs. Katz and Tush Patricia PolaccoPatricia PolaccoA story of an intergenerational friendship between an elderly Jewish woman and her neighbor, a young African-American boy. On their visits together, they talk about many things. They share food, holidays (including a Passover Seder), as well as the history of their people who have faced both discrimination and slavery.
Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky Faith RinggoldFaith RinggoldCassie, who flew above New York in Tar Beach, soars into the sky once more. This time, she and her brother Be Be meet a train full of people, and Be Be joins them. But the train departs before Cassie can climb aboard. With Harriet Tubman as her guide, Cassie retraces the steps escaping slaves took on the real Underground Railroad and is finally reunited with her brother at the story's end.
Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman Alan Schroeder Jerry PinkneyThis is the story of young Harriet Tubman, then called "Minty". A slave in the Brodas household, she is often punished for her feisty, rebellious spirit, and always, above all, dreams of escape
The Yankee at the Seder Elka WeberAdam GustavsonRespect for the opinions of others and openness to learning are important themes of this story about a Jewish Yankee looking for a place to observe Pass-over shortly after the end of the Civil War. Keeping in mind the words from the Passover Haggadah “All who are hungry, let them come and eat,” a Confederate family offers him hospitality.
Follow the Drinking Gourd Jeanette WinterJeanette WinterPeg Leg Joe teaches slaves the words to a song, which are actually the directions for following the Underground Railroad to freedom. Full-color paint-ings and a simple text brings history to life and make it understandable for young readers.
Moses Margeret HodgesBarry MoserRevered as G-d’s chosen leader, Moses weathered countless tests of faith as he guided his people out of slavery. This elegant telling of his inspiring story captures all the power and poetry that marked his life, from his harrowing infancy hidden in a basket in the bulrushes to his final days as he looked toward his people’s freedom in the promised land.
* PJ library Books