This month I will share stories on Black History Month – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. History isn’t always pretty and sometimes we sanitize that which makes us uncomfortable. Here I will share all facets of Black History and try to focus on people not necessarily in the history books.
The Good – Ellen and William Craft
I love this story so much – it’s full of love, adventure, and a great story to come from a horrible institution.
William Craft was born in Macon, Georgia in 1824, At 16, he was auctioned off to a bank cashier. Minutes before being sold, his tearful 14-year-old sister, his brother, and parents were sold to different owners. He was a cabinetmaker and continued in this profession while his new owner kept most of the earnings.
Ellen was born in Clinton. Georgia in 1826. Her mother was a mixed-race slave and her father a planter master. She was very fair-skinned and looked a lot like her half-siblings. When she was 11, her father’s wife gave Ellen as a wedding present to one of her half-siblings. Ellen was a constant reminder to the wife of her husband’s infidelity. Ellen moved to Macon, Georgia and was a house servant. This allowed her to have privileged information about the area.
When she was 20, Ellen married William. They both wanted to have children, but didn’t want to have their family separated by being sold. “The mere thought,” William later wrote of his wife’s distress, “filled her soul with horror.”
The two planned their escape around Christmas 1848. He had saved some money from when he was hired out as a carpenter and they had the advantage of Ellen’s fair skin. At that time, slaveholders could take their slaves to any state. It was common for domestic slaves to accompany their masters while travelling. Knowing this, William had the idea of having Ellen dress as a white man.
As they were well liked by their masters, the couple easily received passes for a few days leave. This would allow them to be gone for a while without anyone worrying.
William cut Ellen’s hair to neck length. She then put her right arm in a sling. Since she couldn’t read or write, this would allow her to use this an excuse not to sign any papers. In addition they wrapped up her face so as to hide her smooth skin and as a way to keep strangers from wanting to speak with her. Donning men’s trousers, a pair of green spectacles, and a top hat, Ellen was now a slave master.
Ellen bought two tickets to Savannah. William had to sit in the negro car leaving Ellen to herself. Things started off rocky as the owner of the cabinetmaker’s shop began questioning the ticket seller and started looking through the windows of the train. William looked away, trying to hide. The man then went to look in the windows of the car where Ellen was in disguise, but never even looked at her. As the man approached William’s car, the train left the station.
As Ellen looked at her seatmate, she realized it was none other than a close friend of her master. Someone who knew Ellen for years. Thinking they were surely caught, the man looked at her and said “It is a very fine morning sir.” Ellen pretended to be deaf.
Making it safely to Savannah, the pair caught a steamer to Charleston, South Carolina. The trip was rather uneventful, even though Ellen was scolded for saying “Thank You” to her/his slave. They stayed at the best hotel in Charleston where Ellen was treated well since she/he was an ailing male traveler.
Next stop was Philadelphia, but there was a problem with buying steamer tickets. Slaveholders at the time had to prove the slaves with them were their property, The ticket seller refused to sign the names of the master (Ellen) and his slave. Things were looking bad for the couple when the captain of the ship came by, vouched for the “slave owner” and signed their names for them.
Throughout their travels, Ellen had to keep up the complicated facade. She didn’t take cigars and brandy with the men. She feared William being kidnapped. At the same time, abolitionists and freed blacks on the trip told him to runaway. But they both kept their composure and never strayed from their roles.
The last major stop before Philadelphia was Baltimore, Maryland. Because it was the last stop before going into a free state, the border patrol were especially vigilant. Once again, the couple were asked to prove ownership. The border officer said he will not let them go. As they prayed, the departure bell rang. The officer frustrated, looked at Ellen and her bandages and said to the clerk there, “he is not well, it is a pity to stop him.” Tell the conductor to “let this gentleman and slave pass.”
On Christmas Day, the Crafts arrived in Philadelphia.
The underground abolitionist network found them lodging and taught them to read. A few weeks later they moved to Boston. William continued his cabinet work and Ellen was a seamstress. They also made public appearances to talk about their escape.
However two years later, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. This law required residents of free states to help capture and return slaves to their owners. The Crafts’ former masters sent slave hunters to bring them back to Georgia. Abolitionists in the area formed a Vigilance Committee in reaction to the new act. They moved the Crafts to various safe houses until the couple was able to escape to Liverpool, England.
While in England, the couple learned to read and write. They lived in England for 19 years and had five children. They became involved in women’s suffrage and the freedman’s groups. They made money by speaking about slavery and William set up a business. When the Civil War ended, Ellen found her mother Maria in Georgia and paid her way to England.
In 1868, the couple and three of their children returned to Georgia. Over a few years, they raised money, bought 1800 acres of land, and built the Woodville Co-operative Farm School for the education and employment of freedmen. Unfortunately William was charged with misuse of funds, lost a libel case in 1878, and the school closed shortly after. The violence of the post-Reconstruction era and dropping cotton prices led to the Crafts leaving their farm. In 1890, they moved to Charleston to live with their daughter and physician husband. Ellen died in 1891 and William in 1900.
Ellen and William Craft. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 2, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_and_William_Craft
Holmes, Marian Smith. (2010, June 16). The Great Escape From Slavery of Ellen and William Craft. Smithsonian.com. Retrieved February 2, 2017, from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-escape-from-slavery-of-ellen-and-william-craft-497960/