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

Slave narratives are a uniquely 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.