Slaves had no control over their own lives — their work, their homes, their health, even their families —were controlled by slave owners. But the slave owners couldn’t control their feelings or their thoughts. And sometimes those feelings and thoughts led to desperate or creative acts. Like when Henry Brown mailed himself to freedom.
- Henry Brown, like most slaves, did not know how old he was or when his birthday was. Slave owners didn’t record slave births and they thought slaves who asked about their birthdays were impertinent and needed to be put in their place.
- Henry, his mother, and his brothers and sisters worked in their master’s house. Their master was relatively kind to them, but Henry’s mother longed for freedom. She knew that slave children could be torn from their families and sold.
- When their master was dying, he called Henry to him. Henry hoped the master would set him free. Instead the master gave Henry to his son.
- Henry was taken from his family and sent to work in his new master’s factory. The boss yelled at him and hit him with a stick when he wasn’t fast enough.
- Henry was just a boy then, but he grew into a strong man. He met a woman named Nancy who was a slave in another house. The two fell in love and their masters agreed to allow them to be married.
- They had three children and they were very happy. Still, Henry and Nancy worried about their children.
- And one day the worst happened. While Henry was at the factory, the master sold Nancy and the children. Henry knew that he would never see his family again.
- He was heartbroken and without hope. He knew that it was time to seek his freedom.
- As he was lifting crates in the factory, Henry had an idea. He his friend James and Dr. Smith, a white man who thought slavery was wrong, to help him. They met him at the warehouse the next morning.
- Henry asked them to pack him into a box and mail him to William Johnson, an abolitionist in Philadelphia. On the top of the box they wrote, “THIS SIDE UP WITH CARE.”
- James and Dr. Smith drove Henry to the railway station. The clerks threw the box into the baggage car, not being careful at all.
- Henry was thrown again, upside down! Blood rushed to his head, his fingers tingled, his head hurt. But he couldn’t make a sound or someone might hear him.
- Someone pushed the box again and finally he was right side up again.
- Finally, 350 miles and 27 hours later, Henry arrived at Dr. Johnson’s house in Philadelphia. Four men helped him out of the crate and welcomed him to freedom. They celebrated this day as his new birthday, March 30, 1849. Soon, people throughout America and Europe had heard of Henry, who was now called Henry “Box” Brown.
Watch a video about Henry Box Brown.