Historical Abolitionist of the Month: Henry “Box” Brown

By Katie Masi

The fight to end slavery is rooted in history and extends until today. Each month we profile some of the brave men and women, both contemporary and historical, who have fought to eradicate slavery. Our historical abolitionist of the month is Henry “Box” Brown.

Henry “Box” Brown, born a slave in Virginia in 1815, gained recognition for his creativity and bravery in the anti-slavery movement. After his wife and children were sold from one plantation to another in North Carolina, Henry Brown became determined to escape to the North. With the help of his friend, James Caesar Anthony Smith, a free black man, and Samuel Smith, a white shoemaker who had connections to the Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia, Henry Brown devised an escape plan.

Brown, with the assistance of sympathizers, decided to ship himself in a box to the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Headquarters. The box was 3 feet long by 2 feet and 8 inches deep by 2 feet wide. Brown spent a total of twenty-seven hours in the box labeled “dry goods.” The plan was risky, but he made it through and was given the nickname “Box.”

Once he gained his freedom, Henry “Box” Brown joined the anti-slavery movement. He traveled New England telling the story of his escape to highlight slaves’ desperation for freedom and to inspire other slaves to think of creative ways to escape. Brown developed and produced the “Mirror of Slavery,” a performance piece telling his story and offering an inside look into the life of a slave.

Brown’s ingenuity added momentum to the anti-slavery movement in the 1800s. Today, slavery is legal nowhere, but it happens everywhere in the form of human trafficking. We should find inspiration in Henry “Box” Brown’s determination to be free and commit to combating trafficking in creative ways.

There are approximately 21 million people enslaved around the world today and the business generates about $150 million for exploiters annually. New and creative approaches are needed to eliminate the illicit profits that drive human traffickers. We need leaders to come together across diverse sectors to dismantle the business of human trafficking by increasing the risks for perpetrators, decreasing the profits, and increasing resources for anti-trafficking policies.

To learn more about how to build on the work of Henry “Box” Brown and other abolitionists, please see our blueprint, on “How to Dismantle the Business of Human Trafficking.”


Published on October 29, 2015


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