In this episode of Black Folklore, host Grant Yanney tells the incredible story of Henry “Box” Brown. His daring escape from slavery and the life that he built as a free man ensured that his legacy would live on forever.
To read the entire story about Henry “Box” Brown click here.
Henry Brown was born a slave in the Antebellum South around 1815 and 1816 in Louisa County, Virginia. He was sent to Richmond at age 15 to work a paid job at a tobacco factory. There, he met and married his wife Nancy in 1836. But the man who “owned” Nancy charged Brown a fee to keep Nancy and their children from being sold. When Brown could no longer keep up with the fees, his wife and three children were sold away to North Carolina. Henry and Nancy had been married for 12 years.
Traumatized by the cruel separation from his family, Brown planned his escape from bondage. He enlisted the help of James C.A. Smith, a free black man, and Samuel Alexander Smith, a white shoemaker, to build a box that would ultimately transport Brown to freedom. Brown wedged himself into the wooden box and was shipped to Philadelphia where he could be a free man. The 27-hour journey was brutal. Brown described the harrowing experience in his autobiography. “I felt my eyes swelling as though they would burst from their sockets, and the veins on my temples were dreadfully distended with pressure of blood upon my head,” he wrote. “I felt the cold sweat coming over me that seemed to be warning that death was about to terminate my earthly miseries.”
But Brown survived the trip and arrived at the headquarters of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society a free man. He went on to become a prominent abolitionist, traveling the country performing and sharing his story, and spreading the anti-slavery message. But upon the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which emboldened slave owners to hunt down and reclaim former slaves who had escaped and found freedom, Brown fled the U.S. and moved to Great Britain. He toured the country for the next 25 years.
After the end of the Civil War, Brown returned to the States in 1875. He had established himself as a successful performer, remarried and had a daughter. He continued his career performing as a magician in the U.S. and Canada until his death in June 1897.
Brown’s story proved that escape and freedom from slavery were possible and inspired the success of the Underground Railroad. His performances also inspired people like Harry Houdini, a magician whose coffin escape trick earned him household recognition worldwide. But behind it all is the incredible legacy of Henry “Box” Brown.
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