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“My wife’s first master was her father, and her mother his slave, and the latter is still the slave of his widow.”
This line, found just a paragraph into William Craft’s 1860 memoir, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, tells us that Ellen Craft was born into horrific circumstances in 1826, that she was the child of rape and slave of the perpetrator. It tells us that Major James Smith likely forced himself upon Ellen’s mother, Maria, until he died, and that was just a part of life on their plantation in Clinton, Georgia. We’ll later learn that the major’s wife knew about her husband’s treachery, and yet she kept Maria close. It was Ellen she sent away.
There’s something we can’t easily ascertain from William’s summary of his wife’s origin story, a curious (dis?)advantage Ellen had yet to realize herself: this most unhappy, violent coupling yielded a light skin tone that would accidently facilitate her freedom.
In the beginning, however, her pale skin was a great detriment, and there was nothing Ellen could do to hide it. The major had clearly abused Maria, whose own mixed-race suggested that white men had been steadily assaulting her matrilineal line for generations. At least three-quarters of European ancestry highlighted Ellen’s resemblance to her master’s family, and at age eleven, she was sent away from her mother because it.
Ellen was not sold, but gifted to her half-sister, Eliza, on the occasion of her wedding to Dr. Robert Collins. They set up house in Macon, with Ellen as a ladies’ maid. Her new master, the doctor, had a half interest in William Craft, whom Ellen married at the age of 20. Like Ellen, William had endured heartbreaking separations from his own family. His parents and brother had long been sold off, and he and his 14-year-old sister were sold within minutes of each other. After she was sold, it was William’s turn.
William was an industrious, skilled cabinetmaker who was allowed to, on occasion, seek supplemental income in town. His other owner, a local bank cashier, kept most of his wages.
William came with more than just savings. He knew the town well, the streets and alleyways, how to move and who to avoid. They would need this learned cartography. By the time Christmas arrived, they hoped to be safely in the North. They wanted to have children, but they feared their masters would sell them, just as they had been sold and separated as children.
But they weren’t spiriting away in the dead of night like most runaway slaves, and they weren’t stowing themselves in boxes or luggage. Their plan was unprecedented: they would hide in plain sight.
Ellen would use her light skin to pass, but it wasn’t enough. If she posed as a white women traveling with William as her servant, unattended by a white man, they would immediately raise suspicion. She would have to pass twice over, as white and a man. She cut her hair and clothed her body in a jacket and trousers she sewed herself, the look of a young cotton planter. People would assume she was literate, but Georgia law prohibited teaching slaves to read or writer, and thus she fashioned a sling for her right arm, ready to protest an injury precluded any writing. But for all of their planning, they could do nothing to hide the fact that neither Ellen nor William could read.
They were no doubt terrified of being discovered, but by all accounts, they exuded a calm countenance during their voyage to freedom. They booked tickets on first-class trains and nights in fine hotels. There were moments of uncertainty and prying eyes, but the closest call occurred on the way to Savannah. Before the train pulled out of the station, a white man claimed the seat next to Ellen and greeted her with, “It is a very fine morning, sir.” She fixed her eyes on him to return the greeting, but was silenced by a shock of recognition. For the next 200 miles, she would sit next to a close friend of her master, a man who had known Ellen for some time. But she was not Ellen on that train, but a white, male cotton planter. To make it through the ride, she added “deaf” to the character.
On the steamer bound for Charleston, South Carolina, Ellen dined with the captain of the steamship, who complimented her “very attentive boy.” He was one to keep an eye on in the North, he warned, while a fellow passenger tried to buy her husband from her.
There were yet more close encounters in Charleston. Ellen made the mistake of saying “thank you” to William, earning the ire of a military officer within earshot. A ticket seller refused to take their money without further documentation, but the captain happened upon the scene and scolded the employee. In Baltimore, proof of ownership was once again demanded, and they were made to leave a train. The sling earned the pity of a local clerk, who ordered the conductor to let them pass.
On Christmas morning, they pulled into the port of Philadelphia and quickly they made their way to Beacon Hill, a free black community in Boston. Soon after, they were married in a Christian ceremony. William resumed cabinetmaking, this time keeping all of his wages, and Ellen became a seamstress. On evenings and weekends, they lectured throughout New England; William was known to be the speaker, it was Ellen who captured everyone’s interest. She posed in her pants and trousers for a photograph abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and William Wells Brown circulated, but the story of passing was not a new one. Women passed as men, and light-skinned slaves as free whites, but travelling in a pair was a simple, but important innovation.
There was, of course, a danger in all this exposure. The United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, and the government granted Ellen’s half-sister the right to reclaim her property. Slave catchers abounded, and they too had the law on their side. It was a federal crime to aid an escaped slave, and law enforcement, whether they worked in a freed state or not, were required to help recapture fugitives.
A month after the law passed, with an additional letter of support from President Millard Fillmore, Eliza dispatched two bounty hunters to Boston. Ellen and William had been spirited away to nearby Brookline, where they hid in the Tappan-Philbrick House at 182 Walnut Street.
Knowing their luck was bound to run out, they made it to Portland, Maine, with an eye towards Nova Scotia. From there, the ship Cambria delivered them to Liverpool, where they would watch their family grow by five over the next nineteen years. Their eldest, Charles, was born into freedom in 1852, followed by William, Brougham, Alfred, and Ellen.
English abolitionists helped them adjust to a life “free from every slavish fear.” They took classes at the Ockham School in Surrey, and Ellen became active in various progressive causes, including Women’s Suffrage. They made money by speaking, though they struggled financially. After the Civil War, they managed to scrape enough together to pay for Maria’s passage to England. In the Anti-Slavery Advocate, Ellen observed that “I had much rather starve in England, a free woman, than be a slave for the best man that ever breathed upon the American continent.”
After emancipation, the Crafts had the ability to be free back in America, or remain in their adopted country. Along with three of their children, the Crafts returned to America in 1868, but they did not head back to Boston. They returned to Georgia, where supporters helped them buy 1800 acres of land near Savannah. They ran the short-lived Woodville Co-operative Farm School, which helped freedmen with employment and education in a hostile, post-Reconstruction era. William was suspected of misusing funds, and subsequent efforts to clear his name, including a libel case, failed.
Relations between blacks and whites grew worse as cotton prices plummeted and white supremacists fought for control over local politics and, by extension, economics. William and Ellen decided it was best to quit Georgia altogether, and went to live with their daughter, Ellen, and her husband, Dr. William D. Crum, in Charleston, South Carolina. Dr. Crum provided for the family, and would soon be appointed Collector for the Port of Charleston by President Theodore Roosevelt.
Ellen died in 1891, and William in 1900. A little over a hundred years after her death, she was inducted into the Georgia Women of Achievement.
Brusky, Sarah. “The Travels of William and Ellen Craft: Race and Travel Literature in the Nineteenth Centry,” Prospects 25.
Alexis Coe is The Toast's history correspondent. She holds a master's degree in American women's political history, and was a research curator at the New York Public Library. Alexis is also a columnist at The Awl, and has contributed to The Atlantic, Slate, the Paris Review Daily, and many others. Her first book, Alice+Freda Forever, will be published on October 7th. Follow her @alexis_coe.