Today, we’ll learn something about Henry ‘ Box’ Brown, a slave who mailed himself to freedom.
Henry “Box” Brown (1815-1879?) was a 19th century Virginia slave who escaped to freedom by arranging to have himself mailed to Philadelphia abolitionists in a wooden crate. For a short time he became a noted abolitionist speaker and later a showman, but later lost the support of the abolitionist community, notably Frederick Douglass, who wished Brown had kept quiet about his escape so that more slaves could have escaped using similar means.
Born into slavery in 1815 in Louisa County, Virginia, Brown was sent to Richmond in 1830 to work in a tobacco factory. There, he married another slave, Nancy, and the couple had three children. Brown used his wages to pay Nancy’s master for the time she spent caring for them. However, in 1848, his wife and children were sold to a slave trader and sent to North Carolina. Brown claimed that he was powerless to prevent this.
With the help of James C. A. Smith and a sympathetic white storekeeper named Samuel Smith (no relation), Brown devised a plan to have himself shipped to a free state by Adams Express Co. Brown paid $86 (out of his savings of $166) to Smith, who contacted Philadelphia abolitionist James Miller McKim, who agreed to receive the box. Brown burned his hand with oil of vitriol as an excuse for missing work.
During the trip, which began on March 23, 1849, Brown’s box traveled by wagon, railroad, steamboat, wagon again, railroad, ferry, railroad, and finally delivery wagon. Several times during the 27-hour journey, carriers 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, 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.
Brown became a well-known speaker for the Anti-Slavery Society. He was bestowed the nickname of “Box” at a Boston antislavery convention in May 1849, and thereafter used the name Henry Box Brown. He published two versions of his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown; first in Boston in 1849 and the second in Manchester, 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 twenty-five years, until 1875. In the 1860s, he began performing as a mesmerist, and some time after that as a conjuror, under the show names Prof. H. Box Brown and the African Prince. Leaving his first wife and children in slavery (though he had the means to purchase their freedom) (see Ruggles); 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. There is also a later report of the Brown Family Jubilee Singers.
The cause and date of his death are unknown.
The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia, a lithograph by Samuel Rowse, depicted Henry Brown emerging from the shipping box into freedom in Philadelphia. The lithograph was published to help raise funds to produce Brown’s anti-slavery panorama. One of only three known originals is preserved in the collection of the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond.
There is a monument to Henry “Box” Brown along the Canal Walk in downtown Richmond, Virginia in the form of a metal reproduction of the box in which Brown escaped.
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