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5 Things The Story Of Henry "Box" Brown Tells Us About Slavery In America

The story of Henry "Box" Brown casts unique and personal light on the tragedy of American slavery, but surprisingly few people know of this fascinating historical figure.

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1. He was born a slave to an enslaved family.

PBS / Via

Henry Brown was born a slave in 1815 in Virginia, as were his parents and 7 brothers and sisters. In his book "The Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown," he recounted his mother's fears about one day losing her children, fears that became all too real as Henry was taken from his family at 15 and sent to Richmond: “My son," she said to him, "as yonder leaves are stripped off the trees of the forest, so are the children of slaves swept away from them by the hands of cruel tyrants.”

2. His family was broken up again as an adult, when his pregnant wife and children were sold.

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In Richmond in 1836 Henry Brown married his wife Nancy, who was owned by a different master. In 1848, when Nancy was pregnant with their fourth child, her master sold her and all their children to a slaveowner in North Carolina. Brown was only able to say goodbye to his wife and children in the street, as they were part of a procession of about 350 slaves driven by a "tyrant's voice and the smart of the whip" to "another land of sorrow" further south. Brown walked with his wife and family for four miles, until they were forced to separate, never to see each other again.

3. Henry Brown devised a plan to escape slavery by shipping himself in a box from Richmond to Philadelphia.

http://U.S. Library of Congress / Via

The cruelties of slavery, especially the cruel act of being separated from his family, drove him to boldly escape to the North. Assisted by a friend and sympathizers, in March 1849 Henry Brown was shipped in a wooden box "3 feet long by 2 feet 8 inches deep by 2 feet wide" labelled as "dry goods," via Richmond's Adams Express Company to the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society. The journey took 27 hours. When William Still, James Miller McKim, Professor C.D. Cleveland, and Lewis Thompson opened the box in Philadelphia, Brown emerged and said, “How do you do, Gentlemen?” and recited a psalm: “I waited patiently on the Lord and He heard my prayer.”

4. Upon his escape to the North, he had to flee to England after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act.

http://U.S. Library of Congress / Via

After his escape, in 1849 Brown published his memoir, lectured, and created an anti-slavery "moving panorama" that he exhibited throughout New England. But with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 - a law that forced citizens, even Northerners, to help capture runaway slaves - Brown, fearing his own capture and return to slavery in the South, fled to England. He performed in England and Europe for the next 25 years, first with his moving panorama and later as a magician and entertainer. He remarried in 1859 and had a daughter. Brown was the subject of criticism, as well, for publicizing to the world how he escaped (rather than keeping it a secret for other slaves to attempt), and for not helping his enslaved first wife and their children. Brown returned to the U.S. in 1875 with his family, with whom he performed until at least 1889 (nothing is known of where or when he died.)

5. Henry Brown's legacy continues in story and song.

The Low Mice / Via

In addition to his own memoir, Henry Box Brown’s story has been retold through documentaries, exhibits, and children’s books. In 2015 The Low Mice recorded a tribute, “Henry Box Brown,” as a small contribution to his legacy.

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