William and Ellen Craft’s ingenious escape from slavery
Rarely, but occasionally, do we feature African American couples who deserve more attention for their historical roles than for individual profiles. Few can compare to the saga of William and Ellen Craft, and it’s good to know that a new retelling of their adventure is now available. A recent review in the New York Times from Ilyon Woo’s “Master Slave Husband Wife” commends her research and reconstruction of their escape from bondage and what happened to them in the years that followed.
For many black history buffs, the history of Crafts is nothing new. No book attempting to chronicle the slave experience in America has casually cited this dramatic incident and the creative ingenuity that went into their escape from slavery.
Marian Smith Holmes did a good job of enlightening readers on the couple’s daring escapade in the June 2010 issue of Smithsonian magazine. It all started in Georgia in 1848 when William Craft and his wife discussed a plan to escape from slavery, basically in front of everyone. With this seed of an idea, Ellen, a Quadron, proposed disguising herself as his master and facilitating her journey to freedom.
Slight enough to pass for White, Ellen also devised other ways to avoid racial and gender recognition, including putting one of her arms in a sling (indicating her inability to sign documents), a top hat, a dark green glasses and a neatly tied tie. Of course, William had to trim Ellen’s curls so that only a fringe of hair peeked out from under the hat. She also masked herself with bandages to further indicate that she had to have a servant traveling with him/her. In this way they could travel and sleep in luxury accommodation, Holmes wrote, although the voyage “was fraught with close escapes and heartbreaking moments that might have led to their discovery and capture”.
Holmes and Woo did their homework, and much of it could not have been done without drawing on Craft’s narrative, “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom,” which they wrote in 1860. “My wife and I were born in different towns in the state of Georgia, one of the most important slave states,” the Crafts wrote in the first chapter of the tale. “True, our situation as slaves was by no means the worst; but the very notion that we were held as chattel and stripped of all legal rights—the thought that we had to give up our hard earnings to a tyrant that he might live in idleness and luxury—the thought that we could not call on the bones and sinews that God has made us our own, but above all the fact that another man had the power to snatch the newborn child from our cradle and sell it like a beast in ruins, and then scourge us when we daring to lift a finger to save him from such a fate haunted us for years.”
From this excerpt you get an idea of their scholarly disposition, and this is reinforced with quotations from great poets such as John Milton. As Holmes noted in her study of the couple, they were “auctioned at the age of 16 to clear his master’s debts… William had become the property of a local bank teller. A trained carpenter, William continued to work in the shop where he had been apprenticed and his new owner collected most of his wages. Minutes before the sale, William had witnessed the sale of his terrified, tearful 14-year-old sister. His parents and brother had met the same fate and were scattered across the South.
“As a child,” Holmes continued, “Ellen, the descendant of her first master and one of his mixed-race slaves, was often mistaken for a member of his white family. Very upset by the situation, the plantation mistress sent 11-year-old Ellen as a wedding present to her daughter in Macon in 1837, where she served as a maid. Ellen and William married, but after experiencing such brutal family separations, they despaired of having children for fear they would be snatched away from them. “The mere thought,” William later wrote of his wife’s plight, “filled her soul with horror.”
Perhaps their closest discovery was when they bought tickets on a steamer from Charleston, South Carolina, to Philadelphia, where written proof of ownership of a slave was required. Just the chance passing of someone who knew Ellen, even if she was in disguise, was convincing enough to get them through.
They arrived in Philadelphia on Christmas Day, 1848, and Ellen burst into tears, exclaiming, “Thank God, William, we’re safe!” But only for a moment, for soon they would be flying again; this time to England after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Three weeks later, Holmes wrote, they moved to Boston, “where William resumed his work as a carpenter and Ellen became a dressmaker. After two years, in 1850, slave hunters arrived in Boston to take them back to Georgia…[In] They eventually had five children in England. After 20 years they returned to the States and founded a school for newly freed blacks in Georgia in the 1870s.”