Take a stroll along Richmond’s Canal Walk and you’ll come upon a small plaza honoring a great Virginian (Dock Street at 15th Street). The honoree is Henry “Box” Brown — an innovator, activist and slave, who in 1849, managed to mail himself to freedom.
Henry Brown was born in 1815 on a plantation in Louisa County, Virginia. Enslaved to John Barret, a kindhearted man who saw value in furnishing his slaves with the basic necessities of life, Brown lived a life that was “comparatively comfortable” when measured against the lives of other slaves. In his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Brown states, “I really believed that my old master was Almighty God, and that the young master [his son] was Jesus Christ…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.”
Life on the plantation was fair for Brown until, at the age of 15, his kind master fell ill and died. In his will, John Barrett divided the ownership of his property, including Brown’s family, amongst his four sons. Brown was bequeathed to William Barret, the eldest son, and subsequently taken to Richmond to work in a tobacco factory. William Barret was not as kind hearted as his father, however he did honor a special charge that was impressed upon him by his father. Brown states,
“I was taken to the city of Richmond, to work in a tobacco manufactory, owned by my old master’s son William, who had received a special charge from his father to take good care of me, and which charge my new master endeavored to perform.”
William Barret took such great care of Brown, furnishing him with a new suit of clothes and money to buy things to send to his mother. “Under the circumstances,” says Brown, “my lot was comparatively easy.”
By the time he was 20, Brown had become an active choir member of First African Baptist Church, rented his own home and married a slave woman named Nancy. Brown even made arrangements with Nancy’s master, Samuel Cottrell, for assurance that he would not sell her to another master. This agreement would cost Brown $50 a year, and would continue for 12 years. Suddenly, while Nancy was pregnant with their fourth child, her master reneged on his agreement with Brown and abruptly sold Nancy and their children to another slaveholder in North Carolina.
“I had left my wife and children at home in the morning as well situated as slaves could be,’’ Brown said. “I was not anticipating their loss, not on account of their owner, for I had long ago learned to look through such hollow pretenses in those who held slaves, but because of the obligation to me for the money I had advanced to him.”
After this treacherous betrayal, Brown suffered in sorrow and disbelief. And by Christmas of 1848, he was determined to become a free man. With the help of two friends — James C. A. Smith, a free black man, and Samuel A. Smith, a white shop owner with ties to the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia — Brown began to work on his plan for freedom. And on the morning of March 23, 1849, Henry Brown made his escape. After burning his hand with sulfuric acid to get out of his work for the day, Brown met up with his two friends, who helped him to carefully fold his 5-foot-8-inch, 200-pound frame into a 2-by-3-foot wooden box. Once Brown was inside, his friends hammered a few nails into the box and affixed shipping instructions on the outside saying, “Dry goods. Handle with care. This side up.” Then, they shipped the box express mail via the Adams Express Company. And off Henry “Box” Brown went on a 260-mile journey from Richmond, Virginia to freedom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
After 27 hours of travel — by way of wagon, steamboat and train — the wooden box carrying Henry Brown was delivered to Philadelphia and received by members of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. “When they heard that I was alive they soon managed to break open the box,’’ Brown explained. “And then came my resurrection from the grave of slavery.” And after 33 years of slavery, Henry “Box” Brown emerged a free man.
He was able to live as a free man until his death in 1897. And while it was never possible to reunite with his family, Henry “Box” Brown was able to travel freely around the world, relaying his heroic journey towards freedom and advocating the cause of the emancipation of the slave.