Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

Henry “Box” Brown’s Narrative: Creating Original Historical Fiction

Created February 5, 2015


The Lesson


Henry Box Brown resurrection

The resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia, who escaped from Richmond, VA in a box 3 feet long, 2 1/2 ft. deep and 2 feet wide.

Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Slave narratives are a unique American literary genre in which former slaves tell about their lives in slavery and how they acquired their freedom. Henry “Box” Brown escaped from slavery by having himself shipped in a crate (hence, the nickname “Box”) from Richmond, Virginia, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1849. Brown made his life-threatening adventure into a famous fugitive slave narrative entitled The Narrative of the Life of Henry “Box” Brown, Written by Himself (1851). Within months of his arrival in Philadelphia, Brown became a speaker on the abolitionist circuit. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850 allowing Southerners to reclaim their fugitive slave property in the North, his fame made him a target for slave catchers. Brown was forced to move to England where he married, settled down, and continued to make public appearances.

In this lesson, students read sections of Brown’s narrative that illustrate the four structural components of fugitive slave narratives. They also review actual runaway ads that slave owners published in newspapers in an effort to retrieve their “property”. Ads are primary source documents that provide insight into owners’ opinions about their slaves, descriptions of the physical appearance of slaves (including bodily features and clothing), and information about the institution of slavery. Using runaway slave ads, Brown’s narrative, and other references, students will write “historical fictional” fugitive slave diary entries from the first person point of view. These will conform to the four-point structure for slave narratives.

The accompanying video clip is here.

Guiding Questions

  • Why are slave narratives, like Henry “Box” Brown’s, significant historical as well as literary contributions?
  • What can we learn about fugitive slaves from both the prevalence and general content of runaway slave ads?

Learning Objectives

  • Identify facts about the life of Henry “Box” Brown as told in his slave narrative.
  • Given a fugitive slave narrative—actual or fictional—identify the four structural components: precipitating event; path of escape; experiences along the way; and result.
  • Using slave ads, the excerpt from Brown’s narrative, and other sources, create a plausible fictional diary entry from the point of view of a fugitive slave that consists of the four structural components of such narratives.


Henry “Box” Brown’s successful escape to freedom in Philadelphia on March 29, 1849, is widely considered the most sensational fugitive slave escape ever recorded. Brown engaged a local shopkeeper and other white abolitionist friends to box him in a shipping crate “three feet one inch wide, two feet six inches high, and two feet wide” and had him “conveyed like dry goods” from Richmond to Philadelphia. The trip took twenty-seven agonizing hours, several of which Brown spent upside down.

He arrived in the box in Philadelphia and was greeted by abolitionists at the antislavery office where he was delivered. Within months of his escape, Brown became a speaker on the abolitionist circuit. Later he turned his experience into a one–man stage production that was popular in England where Brown ultimately settled.

The Narrative of the Life of Henry “Box” Brown, Written by Himself, published in 1851, was part of the slave narrative tradition that dominated African American literature from 1830 to the end of the slavery era. One hundred and one “book length” fugitive narratives were published before the Civil War. Estimates of the number of slaves who actually succeeded in escaping to the North range from 25,000–40,000, with some estimates as high as 50,000. However, 50,000 slaves per annum attempted to run, not to the North, but to other locations in the South during the late antebellum period, primarily to be reunited with loved ones. This is a miniscule percentage of the millions of African Americans who were enslaved during the two-hundred-year era of slavery in the United States.

To regain their fugitive slave property, slave owners often placed ads in newspapers in areas where they thought their slave might be. Graphic descriptions of fugitives included specific details about their clothing and their physical features. Slave owners often used racist and inaccurate language to describe the fugitive’s personality, character, and behavior. For example, advertisements frequently used demeaning terms such as “boy” for a man and “wench” for a woman. Pejorative terms such as “lurking,” “deceitful,” “cunning,” “slow-witted,” and “clumsy” are also common. Rather than being an accurate portrayal of the enslaved person, such language gives us more insight into the master’s view of the fugitive.

The frequency of runaway slave advertisements in newspapers throughout the colonial and antebellum periods reveal that it was common for slaves to run away. However, while many ran, very few were successful in attaining their freedom. Slave owners invested much time and effort to retrieving their valuable property and most slave were not able to evade capture.

Preparation and Resources

Activity 1.

Activity 2.

  • Review Writing Runaway Slave Diary Entries assignment based on “Box” Brown’s narrative, your selected runaway slave ads, and the four-point structure of slave narratives.

Review the Assessment and Assessment Answer Sheet.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Looking Closely at a Fugitive Slave Narrative
  • To introduce the lesson, review the learning outcomes in order to provide an overview of what students will be expected to learn. You may also wish to stress that a key focus of this lesson is the narrative of Henry “Box” Brown, a famous runaway slave account. Don’t give away too much, so that the method of escape and the result will be a surprise. You might also mention that another primary source to be explored is fugitive slave advertisements.
  • Show the video, One Noble Journey: A Box Marked Freedom. Explain that this is a performance based on Brown’s narrative. The video does not reveal whether Brown was successful, but leaves it as a cliffhanger.
  • Divide the class into two groups and distribute General Structure of Slave Narratives and the Excerpt from the Narrative of Henry ‘Box’ Brown. Ask each group to identify and summarize two structural components of the narrative:
    • Group A
      Component 1: Precipitating Event
      Component 2. The Path of Escape
    • Group B
      Component 3: Experiences along the Way
      Component 4: Result
  • Assign group leaders. Encourage both groups to use close reading tactics, such as encircling unknown words and underscoring action statements that reveal “what happened.” The group leader should delegate tasks to group members. Tasks might include: looking up unknown words; asking one or two people to make notes about “implied” meanings of the ad, such as the attitude and biases of the slave owner who wrote it. The group leader should write a summary of the group’s two components using input from all group members.

Exit Ticket. Have each group share their summaries in written form with the class. Ask each student to answer this question: How does knowing the typical structure of a slave narrative help them become better readers of such literature?

Activity 2. Creating Original Historical Fiction
  • Using paragraphs 3 and 4 of the Background, provide students an overview of runaway slave ads.
  • Distribute copies of the runaway slave ads selected from online sources using Accessing Runaway Slave Ads Online. Read several of them aloud or have different students read them. Before each ad is read aloud, ask student to think about questions such as:
  • Whose point of view is represented in the ad?
  • What is the ad’s purpose?
  • Does the ad indicate an opinion of why the slave ran?
  • Do you think it would be possible to identify this fugitive slave from the description provided? Why or why not?
  • Does the ad indicate where the slave may be headed?
  • Also encourage students to underscore any phrases/statement that “jump out” at them.
  • Ask students to write a series of diary entries using the following: runaway slave advertisements; Henry “Box” Brown’s narrative excerpt; and the handout, Typical Experiences of Runaway Slaves. The created runaway slave diary entries should be at least one page and not exceed two. The diary entries, taken altogether, should address each of the components of the four–point structure. They should be historically accurate and reflect actual/typical experiences slaves had when on the run.

This may be a homework assignment in which each student works independently, or it may be a class assignment in which small groups of 3–4 student teams collaborate on the entries.

  • When completed, choose several entries for students to read aloud to the class. After reading, ask:
  • Did the diary entry follow the four-point structure?
  • If not, what structural components were included and describe the content of those?
  • Were the diary entries historically accurate?
  • What was the best part of the diary entries?
  • What aspect of the diary entries could be improved?

Exit Ticket: Ask students to identity three points they learned searching for, and analyzing , slave advertisements.


Cumulative Assessment

Extending The Lesson

The Basics

Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Common Core
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Crafting Freedom
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Biography
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Drama
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Slavery
  • Critical thinking
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Using secondary sources
  • Laurel Sneed (NC)

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