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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

325 “I waited patiently on the Lord and He heard my prayer.” - Henry Box Brown

Day 325: Thursday February 4th, 2021

“I waited patiently on the Lord and He heard my prayer.” - Henry Box Brown

Henry’s Freedom Box

A true story of the Underground Railroad

Henry Brown wasn’t sure how old he was. Henry was a slave. And slaves weren’t allowed to know their birthdays.

Henry and his family worked in the big house where the master lived. Henry’s master had been good to Henry and his family. But Henry’s mother knew things could change. Mother: “Do you see those leaves blowing? They are torn from the trees like slave children are torn from their families.”

One morning the master called for Henry and his mother. Some slaves were freed by their owners. Henry’s heart beat fast. Maybe the master would set him free.

Master: “Henry, come closer and listen. I am very ill. You are a good worker, so I am giving you to my son. You must obey him and never tell a lie.” Henry nodded, but he didn’t say thank you. That would have been a lie. Later that day, Henry said good-bye to his family.

Mother: “Henry, you are going to work for a new master. Take a look high above the trees. Do you see those free birds? Those happy birds? Don’t forget us. Never give up hope. Goodbye, my son.” (hugs him goodbye)

Henry worked for his new master’s tobacco factory. He was good at his job, and he met another slave, James. “Hey kid, welcome to the factory. Listen, don’t tear the tobacco leaves, or the boss will yell at you. Don’t make a mistake, or the boss will beat you with a switch…be on the lookout.”

Besides his talks with James, Henry’s days were lonesome, but one day after work, Henry met Nancy. Henry: “Good day, ma’am, can I help you carry that basket? It looks mighty heavy.” Nancy: (hands over a basket of bread) “Oh, thank you sir. You’re a great help. My name’s Nancy.” Henry: “Hello, Nancy, My name’s Henry Brown. This bread looks delicious! Will you be having it for dinner tonight? Would you mind if I join you?”

Nancy: “Oh, that would be mighty fine, Mr. Brown, but this bread is for my mistress. She’s throwing a huge party and I dare not eat one bite, or she’ll have my hide.”

Nancy and Henry walked and talked and agreed to meet again. Henry felt like singing. But slaves didn’t dare sing in the streets. Instead, he hummed all the way home.

Months later, Henry asked Nancy to be his wife. When their masters agreed, Henry and Nancy were married.

Soon they had 3 children. Henry knew they were lucky. They had a home together even though they had different masters. But Nancy was worried.

Nancy: “Henry, I heard that my master has lost a great deal of money. I’m so afraid he will sell our 3 beautiful children.” Henry threw himself into his work that day, trying to forget what Nancy had said.

James: “Henry, I have some bad news. I just heard that your wife and children were just sold at the slave market.”

Henry: “No!”

Henry couldn’t move. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t work. At lunchtime, Henry rushed to the center of town, where he watched a large group of slaves, his wife, and his children disappear down the road. Henry wiped away tears, and knew he would never see his family again.

Many weeks passed. One morning, Henry heard a singing bird.

Henry: “I see you, little free bird. How can I be free? How?” As he lifted a crate, he knew the answer.

Henry met with Dr. Smith, a white man who knew slavery was wrong. Henry met Dr. Smith and James early the next day at an empty warehouse.

Henry: (showing a box) “I will mail myself to a place where there are no slaves!”

James: “Henry! What if you cough and someone hears you?”

Henry: “I will cover my mouth and hope.”

Dr. Smith: “If you make it, you will arrive at my friends’ home in Philadelphia. Here is the address: William H. Still, Arch Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.” (shows the box to Henry, labeled THIS SIDE UP WITH CARE)

James: “The boss will try to come after you if you don’t show up for work. You need an excuse.”

Henry winced as James poured acid on his skin, burning it to the bone. Now the boss would have to let him stay home!

Dr. Smith bandaged Henry’s hand. They arranged to meet the next morning.

The sun was not yet up when Henry climbed into the box.

Henry: "Ready!”

Dr. Smith and James took the box to station by wagon. The railway clerk took the box.

Dr. Smith: “Please be careful, this package is quite fragile.”

Railroad Worker: “Sure, sure.” (kicks and shoves box)

Hours passed. Henry was lifted up and thrown again. Upside down! He heard waves splashing. This must be the steamboat headed for Washington DC. Blood rushed to his head. His face got hot. His eyes ached. He thought his head would burst. But he was afraid to move. Someone might hear him. Henry heard a passenger talking.

Passenger 1: “I’m tired of standing.”

Passenger 2: “Why don’t we move that box and sit on it?”

Henry held his breath. Could they be talking about his box? Henry was pushed. The box scraped the deck.

Passenger 1:

“What do you think is in here?”

Passenger 2:

“Mail, I guess.”

Henry was carried off the steamboat and placed in a railroad car. He fell asleep to the rattling song of the train wheels.

He awoke to loud knocking.

William: “Henry are you alright in there?”

Henry: “Alright!”

The cover was pried open. Henry stretched and stood up.

Henry: “How do you do, sir?”

William: “Welcome to Philadelphia, Henry!”

At last Henry had a birthday – March 30, 1849, his first day of freedom!

Henry: “And from that day on, I also had a middle name. Everyone called me Henry ‘BOX’ Brown.”


- Written by Ellen Levine

- Illustrations by Kadir Nelson

The story of Henry "Box" Brown BY Dr. Bryan Walls

Henry “Box” Brown was born enslaved in Louisa County, Virginia in 1815. When he was 15, he was sent to Richmond to work in a tobacco factory. His life was filled with unrewarded drudgery, although he had it better than most of his enslaved peers. The loss of freedom prevented him from living with his wife, Nancy, who was owned by a slave master on an adjacent plantation. She was pregnant with their fourth child when, in 1848, he heard the tragic news: Nancy and his children were to be sold to a plantation in North Carolina. He stood with tears in his eyes on the side of the street as he watched 350 slaves in chains walk by him, including his wife with their unborn child and three young children. He could only wish them a tearful last farewell— he was helpless to save them.

After months of mourning his loss, Henry resolved to escape from slavery. He was a man of faith and a member of the First African Baptist Church where he sang in the choir. He acknowledged that, through his faith in God, he was given the inspiration and courage to put together a creative plan of escape.

The plan and preparation to obtain his freedom:

Henry enlisted the help of his choir-member friend, James Caesar Anthony Smith, a free Black who knew Samuel Alexander Smith, a White sympathizer. (They were not related but had the same last name.) Samuel Smith liked to gamble and, for a profit, agreed to help Henry Brown with his plan. The plan that Henry envisioned was for himself to be shipped in a box by rail from Richmond to Philadelphia, a very creative, unique, and dangerous endeavour.

Samuel Alexander Smith in turn contacted James Miller McKim, a White abolitionist and seasoned member (along with William Still) of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society. Samuel Alexander Smith shipped Henry by Adams Express Company on March 23, 1849, in a box 3 feet long by 2 feet 8 inches deep by 2 feet wide, and sent the box as “dry goods.” Henry Brown traveled in the box lined with baize, a coarse woollen cloth, carrying with him only one bladder of water and a few biscuits. There was a hole cut in the box for air, and it was nailed and tied with straps; in large words, “This side up” was written on the box. Brown traveled by a variety of wagons, railroads, steamboats, ferries, and finally, for added safety, a delivery wagon that brought the box to the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society before daybreak.

During the 27- hour journey, the box was turned upside down on several occasions and handled roughly. Henry wrote that he “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.” At one point, Henry thought that he might die, but fortunately two men needed a place to sit down and, “so perceiving my box, standing on end, one of the men threw it down and the two sat upon it. I was thus relieved from a state of agony which may be more imagined than described.” The box with Brown in side was received by William Still, James Miller McKim, Professor C.D. Cleveland, and Lewis Thompson. Upon the box being opened, Brown said, “How do you do, Gentlemen?” then recited a psalm: “I waited patiently on the Lord and He heard my prayer.” He then began to sing the psalm to the delight of the four men present, and was christened Henry “Box” Brown.


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