After his family was sold off to another slave owner, Henry Box Brown mailed himself to a free state to escape forever.
Henry “Box” Brown was a man that had everything torn from him. But in a fateful vision, he saw that the road to his salvation was through a small box. With the aid of his allies, Brown would defy the odds and embark on a harrowing journey toward freedom.
Born A Slave
Henry Box Brown was born in 1815 in Louisa County, Virginia. He spent his early years at the Hermitage, a plantation about ten miles from Yanceyville in Louisa County. He lived with his parents, his four brothers, and his three sisters. His owner was John Barret, the former mayor of Richmond, Virginia. Barret was known to be atypical in how he treated slaves.
Brown described Barret in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown:
“Our master was uncommonly kind, (for even a slaveholder may be kind) and as he moved about in his dignity he seemed like a god to us, but notwithstanding his kindness although he knew very well what superstitious notions we formed him, he never made the least attempt to correct our erroneous impression, but rather seemed pleased with the reverential feelings which we entertained towards him.”
When John Barret was on his deathbed, he sent for Henry Brown and his mother. Believing that their family was going to be freed, the pair came to their owner with, “beating hearts and elated feelings.” Barret’s son had also freed forty of his own slaves several years earlier. However, Barret informed them that they were being allotted to his son, William Barret, and that they should be obedient to their master.
Barret had ensured that William promise that he treat the Browns with kindness. But what Barret critically ignored is that he was splitting up the Brown family, as they were divvied up among the four Barret sons.
Brown’s mother and sister were part of William’s inheritance, but Brown was sent to work in a tobacco factory in Richmond at the age of fifteen. That sister, Martha Brown, eventually became William Barret’s mistress.
Henry Box Brown’s Life Apart
Now into his early twenties, Henry Box Brown fell in love with a slave girl named Nancy. She was the slave of a man called Mr. Leigh, a bank clerk. He went to her master and asked for permission to marry her. He also asked that he and Nancy not be sold away from one another. Mr. Leigh assured Brown that he would not do such a thing. Brown recalled that Leigh “promised faithfully that he would not sell her, and pretended to entertain an extreme horror of separating families.”
Thus in 1836, Brown and Nancy became husband and wife in Richmond, Virginia. They eventually produced three children and joined the First African Baptist Church. Henry even joined the church choir. He became a skilled tobacco worker and earned enough money to rent a home.
But in August of 1848, Mr. Leigh reneged on his word and sold Nancy and their three children to another slave owner in North Carolina. Brown was not told about what Mr. Leigh had done until it was far too late. He recalled the event later:
“I had not been many hours at my work, when I was informed that my wife and children were taken from their home, sent to the auction mart and sold, and then lay in prison ready to start away the next day for North Carolina with the man who had purchased them. I cannot express, in language, what were my feelings on this occasion.”
Pregnant Nancy and his three children were part of a group of three hundred and fifty slaves that had been sold to a slave-trading Methodist minister. Brown begged his master to help. His owner coldly repeated to Brown, “you can get another wife.” He never saw his wife and children again.
The Daring Escape Of Henry Box Brown
After mourning the loss of his family for several months, Henry Box Brown came to a decision: he was going to be free. Brown stumbled on an escape plan when he was engaged in prayer. Henry said, “the idea suddenly flashed across my mind of shutting myself up in a box, and getting myself conveyed as dry goods to a free state.”
He immediately secured the help of a freed black man and a member of his choir. A white shoemaker named Samuel Smith was also was instrumental in his dangerous journey. (Ironically, Smith himself owned slaves.) Smith was paid for his services and put Brown in contact with James Miller McKim, a Philadelphia leader of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society who was involved in Underground Railroad activities.
Brown hired a carpenter to construct the box, which was 3 feet long, 2 feet wide, 2.5 feet deep, and lined with a coarse woolen cloth. It had just three small air holes near where his face would be that would allow him to breathe. A prominent sign was attached that read “This Side Up With Care.” Once inside the box, Henry would be unable to shift his position.
On March 23th, 1849, Henry Box Brown slipped inside this claustrophobic box to be shipped across states. Within hours of the shipment, the box was placed upside down. The box would continuously switch positions, but in one harrowing instance, it almost killed him. Brown recounted his terrifying experience:
“I felt my eyes swelling as if they would burst from their sockets; and the veins on my temples were dreadfully distended with pressure of blood upon my head. In this position I attempted to lift my hand to my face but I had no power to move it; I felt a cold sweat coming over me which seemed to be a warning that death was about to terminate my earthly miseries.”
Henry Box Brown endured twenty-seven hours of this confinement, and he arrived on March 24th, 1849. When the box was opened, he tried to stand and lost consciousness. When he eventually regained consciousness, he sang his own version of Psalm 40: “I waited patiently, I waited patiently for the Lord, for the Lord; And he inclined unto me, and heard my calling.”