Song about Henry Box Brown's Escape from Slavery, 1849
Born into slavery in Louisa County in 1815 or 1816, Henry Brown is best known to history for his ingenious escape from slavery, which he accomplished, with the aid of abolitionists and other sympathizers, by being shipped from Richmond to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in March 1849, while crated in a box.
This sheet was printed in Boston perhaps in June 1849 and probably distributed for the first time at a “Grand Celebration” sponsored by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society held at Abington Grove a park near Boston on July 4th of that year. It includes an engraving of the box in which Brown traveled, with the words “Philadelphia, Pa. / Right side up with care” written on the front. Beneath the image are the lyrics to a song that Brown supposedly sang when he emerged from the box. In line with the tradition of African American spirituals of that time and later, the lyrics convey a joyous expression of praise after deliverance, proclaiming “I waited patiently for the Lord;— And he, in kindness to me, heard my calling— And he hath put a new song into my mouth— Even thanksgiving—even thanksgiving— Unto our God!”
There are some discrepancies, however, between the lyrics on this sheet, and the lyrics that Brown and Charles Stern included in the book, Narrative of Henry Box Brown, published in September 1849. The lyrics on the sheet quote various verses from Psalms 40 in the King James version of the Bible, while the lyrics printed in Brown's book, which were characterized as identical to his words after being liberated from his famed box, feature more refrains and bear the marks of the southern Baptist musical tradition. This sheet was the first of two that were printed and circulated about Brown and his song of thanksgiving. A later version, entitled “Escape from Slavery of Henry Box Brown,” was likely printed in July 1849. Featuring the same engraving but different secular lyrics, it was set to the tune of a minstrel song, “Old Uncle Ned” by Stephen Foster.
As the printed lyrics indicate, song became an integral part of Henry Box Brown's public speeches and later performances. In the months after his escape, and particularly after the publication of his book in September 1849, Brown became a popular and sought-after lecturer and performer on the antislavery circuit. By 1850, Brown had produced a show called Henry Box Brown's Mirror of Slavery, featuring a panorama on a canvas, probably about 10 feet tall, which, as it unrolled, illustrated 49 scenes from his life as a slave and the harsh realities of the slave trade. Fearing reenslavement with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Brown fled to England, where he put on stage productions to tell the story of his bondage and liberation, as well as performing as a magician and mesmerist.
1. What is an abolitionist?
2. What was the significance of music in Brown's career as a public speaker and performer?
3. What was written on the box in which Henry Box Brown traveled? How do these words, often used on packages, take on new meaning when you know there is a person inside the box?
1. Research Henry Box Brown's biography. Taking the example of Brown, his wife, Nancy, and their children, what can you summarize about the impact of the slave trade on African American family life?
2. How does Brown's escape fit into what is known about the Underground Railroad? What risks were taken by enslaved African Americans, and those who assisted them, by participating in such activities?
“Brown, Henry Box.” In Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Edited by John T. Kneebone et al., 294–296. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998– .
Ruggles, Jeffrey. The Unboxing of Henry Brown. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2003.
Brown, Henry Box. Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself. Edited by John Ernest. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.