Henry Box Brown, one of the most famous fugitives from slavery, was also an antislavery speaker, author, and performer. He was born into slavery as Henry Brown in 1815 or 1816 on the Louisa County plantation of John Barret, a former mayor of Richmond. As a teenager, Brown was sent to live in Richmond where he worked in a tobacco factory. In about 1836, Brown married an enslaved woman named Nancy. The couple were active members of the First African Baptist Church, where Brown was a member of the choir.
About 1837, Nancy was sold to Joseph H. Colquitt. He and his wife abused Nancy and their other slaves. After making an agreement with Brown allowing him to live with his wife and their three children, Colquitt broke his word and in August 1848, he sold Nancy, who was pregnant at the time, and their children. Angry, and with his family torn from him, Brown determined to escape slavery, and came up with an unusual method.
Relying on the assistance of James Caesar Anthony Smith, a free black man, and Samuel Alexander Smith, a white shoemaker, Brown decided to ship himself in a box to the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, a group active in the Underground Railroad. On March 23, 1849, Brown stepped into a box three feet long, two and one-half feet deep, and two feet wide to begin his journey to Philadelphia, and freedom. In a trip that lasted twenty-six hours, Brown's box traveled by both railroad and steamboat.
With the word "Box" added to his name to highlight what he had endured to obtain freedom, Henry Box Brown, quickly became a much-sought-after advocate for the antislavery movement. With his background as a vocalist, Brown very early on incorporated singing as a part of his repertoire. In September 1849, Brown and abolitionist Charles Stern published Narrative of Henry Box Brown which boosted Brown's reputation and standing in the abolitionist community. By 1850, Brown had produced a show called Henry Box Brown's Mirror of Slavery, featuring a panorama on a canvas, probably about 10 feet high which, as it unrolled, illustrated the harsh realities of the slave trade and the history of slavery in 49 scenes.
The imminent passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and an abortive effort to kidnap Brown filled him with the fear he could be captured and sent back to Virginia, and so he fled the country for England. While there, Brown continued to promote abolition for a time, and expanded his career in show business. Brown remarried in 1859 and continued to be successful with his stage shows in which he acted as a mesmerist and magician. In 1875, Brown and his family returned to the United States, where he performed as “Prof. H. Box Brown.” The date and place of Brown's death are not known, but the last public reference to him was in an Ontario newspaper for a performance of the Brown Family Jubilee Singers at Brantford on February 26, 1889.
“Brown, Henry Box.” Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Edited by Sara B. Bearss et al., 2:294–296. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998– .
Ruggles, Jeffrey. The Unboxing of Henry Brown. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2003.
Brown, Henry Box. Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself. Edited by John Ernest. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.