Black History Month Heroes You Should Know: Henry Box Brown
Happy Black History Month! This is the third blog of a series of blogs called “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know”. Each blog focuses on the life and career of a Black American whose life has shaped American history.
The focus of today’s blog is Henry Box Brown, a man who escaped enslavement by shipping himself to freedom in a wooden box.
Early Life and Marriage
Henry Box Brown was born enslaved at a plantation in Louisa County, Virginia in 1815. He was forced to work in a tobacco factory starting at age 15. Eventually, he met his wife who was enslaved on a neighboring plantation. Together, they had three children. While she was pregnant with their 4th child, Brown’s wife and children were sold off to a North Carolina plantation owner.
Planning the Escape
The loss of his family led Brown to dedicate himself to escape to freedom. His plan became to ship himself in a box from Virginia to the freedom in Philadelphia. He enlisted the help of members of the Underground Railroad. He got help from a fellow churchgoer James Caesar Anthony Smith and a white contact named Samuel Smith.
The wooden box he chose was 3 feet long, 2 1/2 feet deep, and 2 feet wide. Biography.com says they labeled the box as “dry goods” and lined the whole box with linen. There was only one hole on top for air. After spending 27 hours in the box, Henry Box Brown arrived at the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society headquarters. The first thing Brown did when he got out of the box was recite a psalm.
Better to be Confidential or Public Knowledge?
Unfortunately, the two men who helped him escape were found out and arrested. This drew concern from some abolitionists like Frederick Douglass who thought Brown’s escape and others like it should be kept secretive. Other people argued that public knowledge of the successful escape might inspire other enslaved people to attempt escaping to freedom.
Brown agreed with the latter. He became connected with the New England Anti-Slavery Society Convention in Boston and spent the rest of his life performing his story. Biography.com says a Boston publisher named Charles Sterns published a version of Brown’s story, which became one of the most widely known slave narratives in American history.