Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia



How did Henry Box Brown escape from slavery?

Lesson Images


Henry Box Brown, Prints and Photographs, Special Collections, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

Standards Of Learning

USI.9, VS.7, VUS.6, VUS.7

Historical Information:

Henry Brown was born into slavery in 1815 or 1816 on the Louisa plantation of John Barret, a former mayor of Richmond, Virginia. As a teenager, Brown was sent to live in Richmond where he worked in a tobacco factory, married, and fathered children. In 1848, his pregnant wife Nancy their children were sold and taken to North Carolina. 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 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 26 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 an advocate for the antislavery movement. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Bill in 1850 left Brown fearing he could be captured and sent back to Virginia, and so he fled the country for England. While in England, Brown continued to promote abolition, which eventually led to a career in English show business. Brown remarried in 1859 and continued to be successful with his stage shows in which he acted as a mesmerist and magician. Deciding to return to America in 1875, Brown began giving performances in Massachusetts under his new name, Prof. H. Box Brown. The last-known whereabouts of Henry Box Brown was in Brookline, Massachusetts, in May 1878. The legacy of Henry Box Brown is representative of his daring escape from slavery, and his lifelong promotion for abolition.

Vocabulary Words:

• Fugitive— a person who is fleeing, from prosecution, intolerable circumstances, etc.; a runaway

• Abolitionist— a person who advocates or supports the abolition of slavery

Lesson Activities

• PRE-LESSON ACTIVITY: Read aloud Henry's Freedom Box by Elden Livine and illustrated by Kadir Nelson.

• ART/MATH, AND ORAL EXPRESSION: Have students use math and art skills to construct a box the size Henry Box Brown used to escape. Discuss how much room he would have in a box that size. Use the box as a visual prompt to ask students how they think it might have felt to be such a small space for such a long time. Have students write adjectives that describe Brown's actions on the box when it is complete.

• MAPPING: Have students trace on a map Brown's journey from Richmond to Philadelphia, noting the various means of transportation used.

• COMPARE AND CONTRAST: Have students study Fredrick Douglass's escape from slavery and compare and contrast that to the experience of Henry Brown.

• DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Have students research the Fugitive Slave Act, and find out what the act stated. Students should then summarize what they have learned.

Suggested Materials

Ruggles, Jeffrey. The Unboxing of Henry Brown. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2003.

Related Links

[back to top]