Rarely, but on occasion, we feature African American couples who warrant more exposure for their historic roles, rather than individual profiles. Few are comparable to the saga of William and Ellen Craft, and it’s good to learn that a fresh retelling of their adventure is now available. A recent review in the New York Times of “Master Slave Husband Wife” by Ilyon Woo praises her research and reconstruction of their escape from bondage and what happened to them in the following years.
For many Black history buffs, the Crafts’ story is nothing new. No book that attempts to chronicle the slave experience in America has been remiss in citing this dramatic incident and the creative ingenuity involved in their escape from slavery.
Marian Smith Holmes, in the June edition of the Smithsonian magazine in 2010, did a fine job of educating readers about the couple’s daring escapade. It all began in 1848 in Georgia when William Craft discussed with his wife a scheme to flee from slavery, basically in plain sight. With this germ of an idea, Ellen, a quadroon, proposed that she would disguise herself as his master and facilitate their journey to freedom.
Light enough to pass for white, Ellen also devised other ways to avoid detection of race and gender by putting one of her arms in a sling (indicating an inability to sign any documents), a stove-type top hat, dark-green glasses and a neatly tied cravat. Of course, William had to trim Ellen’s tresses, allowing only a fringe of hair to protrude from under the hat. She also masqueraded with bandages to further indicate her need to have a servant traveling with him/her. Through these means, they were able to travel and stay in luxury accommodations, Holmes wrote, even though the journey was “fraught with narrow escapes and heart-in-the-mouth moments that could have led to their discovery and capture.”
Holmes and Woo have done their homework, and much of it could not have been done without resorting to the Crafts’ narrative, “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom,” that they wrote in 1860. “My wife and I were born in different towns in the State of Georgia, which is one of the principal slave States,” the Crafts wrote in the narrative’s first chapter. “It is true, our condition as slaves was by no means the worst; but the mere idea that we were held as chattels, and deprived of all legal rights—the thought that we had to give up our hard earnings to a tyrant, to enable him to live in idleness and luxury—the thought that we could not call the bones and sinews that God gave us our own: but above all, the fact that another man had the power to tear from our cradle the new-born babe and sell it in the shambles like a brute, and then scourge us if we dared to lift a finger to save it from such a fate, haunted us for years.”
From this excerpt, you get an idea of their learned disposition, and this is enhanced by quotes from great poets such as John Milton. As Holmes noted in her study of the couple, they were “Put up for auction at age 16 to help settle his master’s debts…William had become the property of a local bank cashier. A skilled cabinetmaker, William continued to work at the shop where he had apprenticed, and his new owner collected most of his wages. Minutes before being sold, William had witnessed the sale of his frightened, tearful 14-year-old sister. His parents and brother had met the same fate and were scattered throughout the South.
“As a child,” Holmes continued, “Ellen, the offspring of her first master and one of his biracial slaves, had frequently been mistaken for a member of his white family. Much annoyed by the situation, the plantation mistress sent 11-year-old Ellen to Macon to her daughter as a wedding present in 1837, where she served as a ladies maid. Ellen and William married, but having experienced such brutal family separations despaired over having children, fearing they would be torn away from them. ‘The mere thought,’ William later wrote of his wife’s distress, ‘filled her soul with horror.’”
Perhaps the closest they came to being detected occurred during their purchase of tickets on a steamer from Charleston, South Carolina, to Philadelphia, where ownership of a slave had to be proven in writing. Only the chance passing of someone who knew of Ellen, even in disguise, was convincing enough to gain them passage.
They arrived in Philadelphia on Christmas Day in 1848, and Ellen burst into tears, crying out, “Thank God, William, we’re safe!” However, only for a moment, because soon they would be in flight again; this time to England after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Three weeks later, Holmes wrote, they moved to Boston “where William resumed work as a cabinetmaker and Ellen became a seamstress. After two years, in 1850, slave hunters arrived in Boston intent on returning them to Georgia…[In] England, they eventually had five children. After 20 years they returned to the States and in the 1870s established a school in Georgia for newly freed blacks.”