Black Abolitionists: Henry Box Brown the Fugitive Slave Bill Fighter

1 Posted by - October 5, 2020 - BLACK ABOLITIONIST, LATEST POSTS

By Lesley Gist, The Gist of Freedom

One day, while I was at work, and my thoughts were eagerly feasting upon the idea of freedom, I felt my soul called out to heaven to breathe a prayer to Almighty God. I prayed fervently that he who seeth in secret and knew the inmost desires of my heart, would lend me his aid in bursting my fetters asunder, and in restoring me to the possession of those rights, of which men had robbed me when the idea suddenly flashed across my mind of shutting myself up in a box, and getting myself conveyed as dry goods to a free state.

I was well acquainted with a store-keeper in the city of Richmond, from whom I used to purchase my provisions; I then told him my circumstances in regard to the Slaver, having to pay him 25 dollars per month, and yet that he refused to assist me in saving my wife from being sold and taken away to the South, where I should never see her again; and even refused to allow me to go and see her until my hours of labour were over.

I told him this took place about five months ago, and I had been meditating my escape from slavery since, and asked him, as no person was near us, if he could give me any information about how I should proceed. I told him I had a little money and if he would assist me I would pay him for so doing.

He said I was quite right, and asked me how much money I would give him if he would assist me to get away. I told him that I had I66 dollars and

Being now satisfied that this was the plan for me, I went to my friend Dr. Smith we agreed to have it put at once into execution not however without calculating the chances of danger with which it was attended; but buoyed up by the prospect of freedom and increased hatred to slavery

I was willing to dare even death itself rather than endure any longer the clanking of those galling chains[.]

It being still necessary to have the assistance of the store-keeper, to see that the box was kept in its right position on its passage,……

he did not think I could live in a box for so long a time as would be necessary to convey me to Philadelphia, but as I had already made up my mind.

My next object was to procure a box, and with the assistance of a carpenter that was very soon accomplished.

In the mean time the storekeeper had written to a friend in Philadelphia, but as no answer had arrived,

It was deemed necessary that I should get permission to be absent from my work for a few days, … in order to keep down suspicion until I had once fairly started on the road to liberty; and as I had then a gathered finger I thought that would form a very good excuse for obtaining leave of absence; but when I showed it to one overseer, Mr. Allen, he told me it was not so bad as to prevent me from working,

So with a view of making it bad enough, I got Dr. Smith to procure for me some oil of vitriol in order to drop a little of this on it,

but in my hurry I dropped rather much and made it worse than there was any occasion for, in fact it was very soon eaten in to the bone, and on presenting it again to Mr. Allen I obtained the permission required, with the advice that I should go home and get a poultice of flax-meal to it, and keep it well poulticed until it got better.

I took him instantly at his word and went off directly to the store-keeper who had by this time received an answer from his friend in Philadelphia, and had obtained permission to address the box to him, this friend in that city, arranging to call for it as soon as it should arrive. There being no time to be lost, the store-keeper, Dr. Smith, and myself, agreed to meet next morning at four o’clock, in order to get the box ready for the express train.

The box which I had procured was three feet one inch wide, two feet six inches high, and two feet wide: and on the morning of the 29th day of March, 1849, I went into the box– having previously bored three gimlet holes opposite my face, for air, and provided myself with a bladder of water, both for the purpose of quenching my thirst and for wetting my face, should I feel getting faint.

I took the gimlet also with me, in order that I might bore more holes if I found I had not sufficient air. Being thus equipped for the battle of liberty, my friends nailed down the lid and had me conveyed to the Express Office.

I had no sooner arrived at the office than I was turned heels up, while some person nailed something on the end of the box. I was then put upon a waggon ..and I had no sooner

The next place we arrived at was Potomac Creek, where the baggage had to be removed from the cars, to be put on board the steamer; where I was again placed with my head down, and in this dreadful position had to remain nearly an hour and a half, which, from the sufferings I had thus to endure, seemed like an age to me, but I was forgetting the battle of liberty, and I was resolved to conquer or die.

I felt my eyes swelling as if they would burst from their sockets; and the veins on my temples were dreadfully distended with pressure of blood upon my head. In this position I attempted to lift my hand to my face but I had no power to move it; I felt a cold sweat coming over me which seemed to be a warning that death was about to terminate my earthly miseries, but as I feared even that, less than slavery,

I resolved to submit to the will of God, and under the influence of that impression, I lifted up my soul in prayer to God, who alone, was able to deliver me.

My cry was soon heard, for I could hear a man saying to another, that he had travelled a long way and had been standing there two hours, and he would like to get somewhat to sit down; so perceiving my box, standing on end, he threw it down and then two sat upon it.

I was thus relieved from a state of agony which may be more easily imagined than described[.] I could now listen to the men talking, and heard one of them asking the other what he supposed the box contained; his companion replied he guessed it was “THE MAIL.” I too thought it was a mail but not such a mail as he supposed it to be.

The next place at which we arrived was the city of Washington….I heard him call for some person to help to take the box off the waggon, and some one answered him to the effect that he might throw it off; but, says the driver, it is marked “this side up with care;” so if I throw it off I might break something, the other answered him that it did not matter if he broke all that was in it, the railway company were able enough to pay for it. No sooner were these words spoken than

I began to tumble from the waggon, and falling on the end where my head was, I could bear my neck give a crack, as if it had been snapped asunder and

I was knocked completely insensible. The first thing I heard after that, was some person saying, “there is no room for the box, it will have to remain and be sent through to-morrow with the luggage train;

but the Lord had not quite forsaken me, for in answer to my earnest prayer He so ordered affairs that I should not be left behind; and I now heard a man say that the box had come with the express, and it must be sent on. I was then tumbled into the car with my head downwards again, but the car had not proceeded far before, more luggage having to be taken in, my box got shifted about and so happened to turn upon its right side; and in this position I remained till I got to Philadelphia, of our arrival in which place I was informed by hearing some person say,

“We are in port and at Philadelphia.” My heart then leaped for joy, and I wondered if any person knew that such a box was there.

… I was only twenty seven hours in the box, though travelling a distance of three hundred and fifty miles.

I was now placed in the depôt amongst the other luggage, where I lay till seven o’clock, P.M., in which I was. I was then placed on a waggon and conveyed to the house..

A number of persons soon collected round the box. I did not know what was going on I kept myself quiet.

I heard a man say, “let us rap upon the box and see if he is alive;” and immediately a rap ensued and a voice said, tremblingly,

“Is all right within?” to which I replied–“all right.” The joy of the friends was very great;

when they heard that I was alive they soon managed to break open the box,

and then came my resurrection from the grave of slavery.

I rose a freeman, but I was too weak, by reason of long confinement in that box, to be able to stand, so I immediately swooned away.

After my recovery from the swoon the first thing, which arrested my attention, was the presence of a number of friends, every one seeming more anxious than another, to have an opportunity of rendering me their assistance, and of bidding me a hearty welcome to the possession of my natural rights,

I had risen as it were from the dead; I felt much more than I could readily express; but as the kindness of Almighty God had been so conspicuously shown in my delivcrance,

I burst forth into the following hymn of thanksgiving,

I waited patiently, I waited patiently for the Lord, for the Lord; And he inclined unto me, and heard my calling:
I waited patiently, I waited patiently for the Lord,
And he inclined unto me, and heard my calling:
And he hath put a new song in my mouth,
Even a thanksgiving, even a thanksgiving,
even a thanksgiving unto our God.
Blessed, Blessed, Blessed, Blessed is
the man, Blessed is the man,
Blessed is the man that hath set his
hope, his hope in the Lord;
my God, Great, Great, Great,Great are the wondrous works which thou hast done.
Great are the wondrous works which thou hast done, which thou hast done:
If I should declare them and speak of them, they would be more, more, more than I am able to express.
I have not kept back thy loving kindness and truth from the great congregation.
I have not kept back thy loving kindness and truth from the great congregation.
Withdraw not thou thy mercy from me,
Withdraw not thou thy mercy from me, O Lord;
Let thy loving kindness and
thy truth always preserve me,
Let all those that seek thee be joyful and glad,
Let all those that seek thee be joyful and glad, be joyful, and glad, be joyful and glad, be joyful, be joyful, be joyful, be joyful, be joyful and glad–be glad in thee.
And let such as love thy salvation,
And let such as love thy salvation, say, always,
The Lord be praised,
The Lord be praised.
Let all those that seek thee be joyful aud glad,
And let such as love thy salvation, say always,
The Lord be praised,
The Lord be praised,
The Lord be praised.
Page 59

My next journey was to New Bedford, where I remained some weeks under the care of Mr. H. Ricketson, my finger being still bad from the effects of the oil of vitriol with which I dressed it before I left Richmond.

While I was here I heard of a great Anti-slavery meeting which was to take place in Boston, and being anxious to identify myself with that public movement, I proceeded there and had the pleasure of meeting the hearty sympathy of thousands to whom I related the story of my escape. I have since attended large meetings in different towns in the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and New York, in all of which places I have found many friends and have endeavoured, according to the best of my abilities, to advocate the cause of the emancipation of the slave; with what success I will not pretend to say–but with a daily increasing confidence in the humanity and justice of my cause, Page 60 and in the assurance of the approbation of Almighty God.

I have composed the following song in commemoration of my fete in the box:–

I had not been many hours at my work, when I was informed that my wife and children were taken from their home, sent to the auction mart and sold, and then lay in prison ready to start away the next day for North Carolina with the man who had purchased them. I cannot express, in language, what were my feelings on this occasion[.]


While I was thus musing I received a message, that if I wished to see my wife and children, and bid them the last farewell, I could do so, by taking my stand on the street where they were all to pass on their way for North Carolina. I quickly availed myself of this information, and placed myself by the side of a street, and soon had the melancholy satisfaction of witnessing the approach of a gang of slaves, amounting to three hundred and fifty in number, marching under the direction of a methodist minister, by whom they were purchased, and amongst which slaves were my wife and children. I stood in the midst of many who, like myself, were mourning the loss of friends and relations and had come there to obtain one parting look at those whose company they but a short time before had imagined they should always enjoy, but who were, without any regard to their own wills, now driven by the tyrant’s voice and the smart of the whip on their way to another scene of toil, and, to them, another land of sorrow in a far off

These beings were marched with ropes about their necks, and staples on their arms, and, although in that respect the scene was no very novel one to me, yet the peculiarity of my own circumstances made it assume the appearance of unusual horror. This train of beings was accompanied by a number of waggons loaded with little children of many different families, which as they appeared rent the air with their shrieks and cries and vain endeavours to resist the separation which was thus forced upon them, and the cords with which they were thus bound; but what should I now see in the very foremost waggon but a little child looking towards me and pitifully calling, father! father! This was my eldest child, and I was obliged to look upon it for the last time that I should, perhaps, ever see it again in life; if it had been going to the grave and this gloomy procession had been about to return its body to the dust from whence it sprang, whence its soul had taken its departure for the land of spirits, my grief would have been nothing in comparison to what I then felt; for then I could have reflected that its sufferings were over and that it would never again require nor look for a father’s care;

while I looked for the approach of another gang in which my wife was also loaded with chains. My eye soon caught her precious face, but, gracious heavens! that glance of agony may God spare me from ever again enduring!

Shortly after this Mr. Colquitt was taken sick, and his minister, the Rev. Dr. Plummer, was sent for to visit him; the doctor came and prayed for him and so did other members of the church; he saw me he caught hold of my hand and said;– “Henry will you pray for me and ask the Lord to spare my life, and restore me to health?”….Later upon returning to good health..
“he denied asking any person to pray for him, and he said if he did ask the negroes to pray for him he must have been out of his senses, and did not, at the time he spoke, remember anything about it; but his wife still persisting in what she said, he went to the back door and calling his slaves one at a time, asked them who it was that prayed for him, until he got the names of all those who had been concerned in the affair, and when he had done so, he whipped every one of them which said he had prayed as Mrs. Colquitt had stated[.] He seemed wishful to whip me also”

“If a slave, when absent from his plantation, refuse to be examined by any white person, no matter what the moral character of such white person, or for what purpose he wishes to make the examination, such white person may chastise him, and if, in resisting his chastisement, he should strike the white person, by whom he is being chastised, he may be KILLED.”–Law of South Carolina.

“If any slave shall presume to strike any white person provided such striking be not done by the command and in defence of the property of the owner, such slave Page vii shall, upon trial and conviction, before the justice or justices, suffer such punishment, for the first offence, as they shall think fit, not extending to life or limb, and for the second offence, death.”–Law of Georgia.

“If any person cut any chain or collar, which any master of slaves has put upon his slave, to prevent such slave from running away, such person will be liable to a penalty not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisonment not exceeding two years.”–Law of Louisiana.

“If any person cut out the tongue, put out the eye, cruelly burn, or deprive any slave of a limb, he shall be liable to a penalty not exceeding five hundred dollars.”

“If a slave be attacked by any person not having sufficient cause for so doing, and be maimed or disabled so that THE OWNER SUFFERS A LOSS FROM HIS INABILITY TO LABOUR, the person so doing, shall pay the master of such disabled slave, for the time such slave shall be off work, and for the medical attendance on the slave.”–Law of South Carolina.
If more than seven slaves be found together in any road without a white person, they shall be liable to twenty lashes each.

If any slave visit a plantation, other than that of his master, without a written pass, he shall be liable to ten lashes.

If a slave let loose a boat from where it has been made fast, he shall for the first offence be liable to a penalty of thirty-nine lashes, and for the second, to Page viii have one ear cut from his head–for being on horseback, without a written permission from his master– twenty-five lashes; for riding or going abroad at night, without a written permission, a slave may be cropped or branded in the cheek, with the letter E, or otherwise punished, not extending to life, or so as to render him unfit for labour.

Mr. Brown continued to travel in the United States until the Fugitive Slave Bill–which passed into law last year– rendered it necessary for him to seek an asylum on British ground. Such was the vigilance with which the search for victims was pursued, that Mr. Brown had to travel under an assumed name, and by the most secret means shift his panorama to prevent suspicion and capture.

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1 Comment

  • Linda Tart October 5, 2020 - 8:49 pm

    From what I understand, he never tried to locate his wife and children. He also, remarried. Considering the times, I guess it was acceptable. However, many men went to all kinds of extremes, to get their family back.