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Special Delivery - The Story of Henry "Box" Brown

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 6, Number 5

In Frederick Douglass' My Bondage and My Freedom, he never reveals how he escaped from his last master, Hugh Auld. "How I got away - in what direction I traveled - whether by land or by water; whether with or without assistance - must, for reasons already mentioned, remain unexplained." Those reasons? "Had not Henry Box Brown and his friends attracted slaveholding attention to the manner of his escape, we might have had a thousand Box Browns per annum." Douglass was wrong, as there could only be one Henry "Box" Brown.

Henry Brown was born a slave in Louisa County, Virginia, in 1815. Separated from his parents as a young man, Henry was sent to Richmond to work in a tobacco factory run by his owner's son. Overall, he was treated well by his owners throughout his slave "career." Henry's factory work allowed him to earn money above what his owner received for his services, and he hoped to some day buy his own freedom. Henry came to marry a local slave named Nancy, and their owners both promised not to sell the other. Nevertheless, Nancy was promptly sold several times to various Richmond residents, the last being a Mr. Colquitt.

Like the slaveholders Frederick Douglass described, all of Nancy's subsequent owners claimed to be very pious and religious men. In spite of his piety, Colquitt systematically extorted money from Henry in exchange for not selling off his family. When he could extort no more money, Colquitt pawned their household possessions in exchange for his own $17 debt, and then sold Nancy and her young children to an equally pious Methodist minister headed for North Carolina. This occurred one morning after Henry left for work at the Richmond tobacco factory. Henry rushed to the sheriff's office to reclaim his family's goods, but he couldn't go to the pens where the North Carolina slaves were being held, for fear of being taken himself.

He eventually learned the route the slaves would take, and the next day joined many others in the street who were hoping for a last glimpse of their loved ones. Amid the shrieks and screams of 350 enslaved human beings, most with ropes around their necks and irons on their legs, Henry soon heard his oldest child cry out for him, and then saw his wife, who managed to grasp his hand. They clung together for over four miles until Henry was forced to release Nancy to her fate. Henry knew his family was lost forever. With nothing more to lose, he dared tell a Richmond storekeeper, a Quaker, of his desire to escape north. He just needed a plan.

It soon occurred to Henry to have the storekeeper box him up and ship him north for delivery to a Quaker safe house. After providing Henry with a tool to make more air holes if needed and some water, the storekeeper nailed shut the 3 foot by 2 foot by 2 foot crate, addressed it to Mr. James McKim in Philadelphia, and printed "This Side Up With Care," on top. In spite of that message, Henry spent several hours on his head and on his side; being thrown down and sat upon; and being conveyed by wagon, train, and ship. After 27 hours and 300 miles, someone knocked on the crate and asked, "Alive? Is all right within?" For the first time, Henry "rose up, a free man."

Henry earned money for the abolitionist cause by traveling throughout the north and Europe telling his story to astonished audiences. Frederick Douglass did not tell his own story of escape, but he was wrong about Henry "Box" Brown. Henry's plan was so outrageous, the story so unbelievable, it was unlikely anyone else could duplicate it. Henry gladly told his story, but not to teach others how to escape. Henry told the story to give others hope.