Henry,” said Mama, “don’t you ever
steal, and never tell lies. You are God’s child.”
“I promise, Mama,” 10-year-old
Henry Brown said solemnly.
The Browns were slaves on the
Virginia plantation of John Barret. They worshipped God with Barret’s blessing,
but not all slaves were granted that privilege. One time when Henry and his
brother Edward made the 10-mile trip to Colonel Ambler’s grain mill, they met
several other slaves.
“Your master sure does treat you
well,” said one man.
“What do you mean?” asked Henry.
“Look at our clothes. We have only
a shirt and pants made of sacking. You have clothes made of fine cloth— and
shoes, too. Even vests and hats!”
“God has blessed us with a kind
master,” said Henry, cautiously. It did not do to criticize a slaveholder, even
to other slaves.
“Shhh!” hissed the man. “You’ll get
us all into trouble, talking about God. Colonel Ambler doesn’t allow us to go
to church. One of us—I don’t dare say who—is our preacher. He has to baptize
people secretly in the middle of the night, else we all get whipped.”
“Oh, no!” hissed another slave.
“Here comes the overseer. We’re in trouble now.”
“For what?” asked Edward.
“For talking to you,” said the
slave. Sure enough, a few minutes later Henry and Edward heard the slashing of
the whip and the screams of the slaves being punished for daring to speak to
someone from off their plantation.
But his own “easy” life would not
last. When Henry was 15, everything changed.
“Old Master is dying!” The news
flew around the plantation, and the slaves began to gather in the yard. What
would happen to them now? Slaves never knew what the future might hold for
them. It was usually something bad, but this time there was some hope.
Barret had been criticized by his
White neighbors for being too kind to his slaves, never whipping them and
always feeding them well. He had been especially kind to the Brown family, even
allowing Henry and his brother to go on errands as far as 20 miles off the
plantation! So when the dying Barret sent for Henry, the young man had every
reason to believe he was about to be freed. Eagerly, the teenager approached
“Henry,” croaked Barret, “you
belong to my son William now.”
What a bitter disappointment!
Worse, the close family was broken up, parceled out to the old man’s four sons.
Henry would never forget his mother’s tears as her youngest child was led out.
Mother and daughter were allowed one last hug, and then the little girl was put
on the wagon that took her away forever.
Henry was sent to Richmond, where
young Master William put him to work in a tobacco factory. Henry was treated
well—as well as a slave ever was, anyway. William let him keep some of the
wages he earned at the factory, let him live in a little rented house, and
ordered the overseer never to whip him. Still, Henry was conscious every day of
his captive status as he saw other slaves neglected, beaten, and even killed
for the most trivial offenses. One coworker was mercilessly whipped by the
overseer for the “crime” of being sick!
Five lonely years went by, and
then, when he was 20, Henry fell in love. Her name was Nancy, and —wonder of
wonders—she loved him back! Hardly daring to breathe, the two young people
asked permission to marry. To their joy, it was granted.
Nancy was sold a number of times,
but always to slaveholders in the Richmond area. Her services as a household
worker were rented out, but she was able to live with Henry in the little
rented house, until finally she came under the control of a Mr. Cottrell.
“I’ll never sell Nancy,” Cottrell
promised. “Separating a family’s a terrible thing. Unthinkable!” he declared
piously. “Of course,” he added, “you can’t expect me to pay her keep. You’ll
have to support her and your children. I won’t rent her out—as long as you pay
me $50 a year.”
It was a steep price, but Henry
managed it. He and Nancy joined the African Baptist Church, where Henry sang in
the choir. After 12 years of marriage the happy couple had three children, with
a fourth on the way. The only problem was Cottrell’s continued demands for
“advances” on the money Henry paid him, advances that added up to much more
than $50 a year.
Then came the day Henry had nothing
more to give, in spite of Cottrell’s insistent demand for cash. Finally
Cottrell stomped away, muttering, “I want money, and I will get money!”
Nancy was tearful. “I’m afraid he’s
going to sell one of our children,” she whispered.
“He wouldn’t do that!” Henry
protested. “He’s a Christian, and he doesn’t believe in separating families.”
But dread froze his heart.
The next day, as Henry was working
at the factory, pressing the wet tobacco leaves into lumps and twisting them
into long strands, his friend James Smith, a free African-American, came
“Henry! Henry! They’ve taken Nancy
—and the children, too!”
“What do you mean, ‘taken’? Who’s
taken her?” asked Henry, his insides churning.
“Slavers! Cottrell went and sold
her and all your children! They’ve got them in the jailhouse right now, with a
whole bunch of others; they’re all heading South in the morning!
Henry reeled as the bottom dropped
out of his world. His darling wife! His precious little ones! Sold south, where
the swamps and heat were a virtual death sentence for slaves! William refused
to let him leave work until Henry had completed his daily 12 hours. Then the
agonized husband and father rushed out to see Cottrell and beg for his wife and
children, but it was no use. After a sleepless night Henry decided to ask
William to buy back his family.
“I don’t have the $5,000 to buy
them back,” Henry said, “but if you advance me the money, I’ll pay it
back—every cent,” he promised, with tears in his eyes. William shook his head.
“No, Henry, I’m not going to do
that. Nancy and her children are Cottrell’s property, and he has a right to do
what he wants with them. Anyway, what’re you so upset about? You can get
Henry’s mouth dropped open to hear
this devoted church member talk like that.
“I don’t want another wife. I want
my Nancy! ‘What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.’”
“Who do you think you are, to talk
to me this way!” roared William. “Leave my house this instant!”
The next morning Henry stood at the
side of the street as the gang of 350 chained slaves trudged past.
He spotted his children first,
riding in a wagon near the front of the line. Tears rolling down their faces,
they stretched their arms toward their father as the wagon rumbled past. Nearly
blinded by his own tears, Henry finally spotted pregnant Nancy. He ran over and
took her hand, trying to think of comforting words, but tears clogged his
“We shall meet in heaven,” he
finally managed to choke out.
Together they walked for four
miles, hands tightly clasped, neither of them able to say another word for the
heaviness of their grief, and then Henry was ordered back to the city. With one
last, loving look they parted.
It’s not right! his mind cried out,
but there was nothing he could do.
Henry had never been whipped, but
he would gladly have accepted a dozen vicious beatings rather than this heart
pain that ripped him in two.
After months of mourning, Henry
came to a decision. He approached his friends James and Samuel A. Smith (no
relation), a White shoemaker. “I am determined to be free or die in the
attempt,” said Henry. For days the three men discussed possible plans, but none
seemed safe and sure enough.
Then one day at work, as he prayed
for God’s help, the plan suddenly burst upon his mind. I’ll ship myself north—in