Henry Brown was born into slavery, circa 1815, 45 miles outside of Richmond, Virginia. As a young man, he was taken to work in the Richmond tobacco factory of his owner, William Barret. Well-regarded by Barret, Brown was generally treated kindly, but soon grew acutely aware of the cruelties visited on his fellow slaves.
Brown fell in love with a slave woman named Nancy who was owned by a local banker. Both owners consented to the marriage. Although Nancy’s owner pledged to never sell Brown’s wife and break up the family, she was sold twice during their marriage. Nancy’s third owner, Samuel Cottrell, extorted Brown, requiring him to pay $50 a year to prevent the sale of Nancy and their three children.
One evening in August 1848, Brown returned home to find his wife and children gone. Cottrell had sold them, and they were being held in the local jail awaiting transport to North Carolina. As his family was taken from Richmond, Brown followed, holding his wife’s hand for four miles. He never saw Nancy or his children again.