Henry ‘Box’ Brown: At the Intersection of Two Peculiar Institutions
February 23, 2014
To understand the legacy of Henry “Box” Brown requires one to understand the legacy the Tobacco industry in Richmond, Virginia and its use of slave labor. In 1830 there was more processed product of plug, twist and snuff tobacco being shipped from Richmond than ever before. In the tobacco factories there was minimal use of machinery, causing a reliance on slave labor to accommodate the high demand for processed tobacco products. Half of Richmond’s residents were black, three-fourths of which were slaves. Depending on the season, one-fourth to one-third of Richmond’s black residents were employed in tobacco manufacturing. At the factory where Brown worked there were 150 black men employed; 120 of them were enslaved. The many tobacco factories in Richmond played a large part in the city’s copious supply of black slave labor.
Few may know the conditions under which Brown worked and lived that finally forced him to escape the slavery-based tobacco industry. Like other enslaved men in the factory, Brown worked six days per week, ten hours per day. He was specialized in twisting tobacco, a skill that was very valuable in the 1830s tobacco market. For a slave to make a profit he had to work overtime and Henry was a man in need of money. He married an enslaved woman named Nancy whom he loved immensely and they had three children together; however, Nancy was owned by a different master. Henry had to pay her master for her time as his wife or else the man would sell her. So Henry was forever in the factory working overtime and enduring more hardships than any man should bear.
Life in the factory became especially difficult with the hiring of the overseer John F. Allen. Allen is best known today for his partnership with Lewis Ginter to create Allen & Ginter Tobacco Company, which eventually evolved into what’s now the Fortune 500 company Philip Morris International. Henry believed Allen to be the meanest overseer there ever was. A particular story that stood out for Brown was when an enslaved man missed work due to extreme illness. The slave was forced into the factory and publically whipped. Allen whipped him for so long and so hard that the man passed out from the pain. Brown had to witness and endure such merciless, barbaric behavior every day and, because of the booming tobacco industry, so did hundreds of other enslaved men and women in Richmond. Brown was even tormented by Allen during his final day as a slave. He told Allen of an injury and asked to go home, but Allen wouldn’t have it. He made Henry go back to work. It was not until Henry poured enough hydrochloric acid on his hand to burn his skin down to the bone that Allen finally let him leave the factory, unknowingly allowing for his escape.
One would think at this point that the daily life and turmoil of a slave in the tobacco industry was cruel enough, but it gets worse. Henry’s breaking point came suddenly when his wife’s owner decided to sell her, pregnant, along with their three children to a man in North Carolina. Brown wasn’t even there for the decision. He heard his family had been sold and he couldn’t see them until they were leaving; his children in a cage on a wagon and his wife shackled into a coffle gang. His children were ecstatic just to know he had come to say goodbye. Brown walked alongside his wife for miles, unable to say goodbye until he was forced to. He had done nothing to deserve this punishment. He had abided by the agreement with Nancy’s master, paying him every extra cent he reaped at the factory. Beyond the abuse of the factory life, families were ripped apart with the flick of the wrist, causing more pain and suffering than can be imagined.
Henry mourned the loss of his family, his life, for days. With time his sorrow metamorphosed into anger, leaving a desire for escape that he could not contain. Henry vowed to break free of the chains of slavery and so he did. His defiance of the institution made to oppress and rupture his spirit was a beacon of hope for many who were still trapped in the crosshairs of the peculiar institution of slavery and the tobacco industry that brought them all to Richmond in the first place.
Tess Simms is a graduating senior (Class of 2014) and double major in African American Studies and English. She is completing a research internship in the Department of African American Studies with Dr. Aashir Nasim.
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