Ellen and William Craft

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Ellen and William Craft, fugitive slaves, abolitionist

Ellen Craft (1826–1891) and William Craft (September 25, 1824 – January 29, 1900)[1] were slaves from Macon, Georgia in the United States who escaped to the North in December 1848 by traveling openly by train and steamboat, arriving in Philadelphia on Christmas Day. She posed as a white male planter and he as her personal servant. Their daring escape was widely publicized, making them among the most famous of fugitive slaves. Abolitionists featured them in public lectures to gain support in the struggle to end the institution. As the light-skinned mixed-race daughter of a mulatto slave and her white master, Ellen Craft used her appearance to pass as a white man, dressed in appropriate clothing.

Threatened by slave catchers in Boston after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Crafts escaped to England, where they lived for nearly two decades and reared five children. The Crafts lectured publicly about their escape. In 1860 they published a written account, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; Or, The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery. One of the most compelling of the many slave narratives published before the American Civil War, their book reached wide audiences in Great Britain and the United States. After their return to the US in 1868, the Crafts opened an agricultural school for freedmen's children in Georgia and worked the farm until 1890. Their account was reprinted in the United States in 1999, with both the Crafts credited as authors, and it is available online at Project Gutenberg and the University of Virginia.

Early life[edit]

Ellen Craft was born in 1826 in Clinton, Georgia to Maria, a mixed-race slave, and her wealthy planter master, Major James Smith. At least three-quarters European by ancestry, Ellen was very fair and resembled other children in her master's family, to whom she was a half-sister. Smith's wife gave the 11-year old slave Ellen as a wedding gift to her daughter Eliza Cromwell Smith to get the girl out of the household and remove the evidence of her husband's infidelity. Ellen was taken to the city of Macon after Eliza Smith married Dr. Robert Collins.[2][3] Ellen grew up as a house servant to Eliza, which gave her privileged access to information about the area.

Marriage and family[edit]

At the age of 20, Ellen married a fellow slave, William Craft, in whom her master Collins held a half interest. Craft saved money from being hired out in town as a carpenter.[2] Not wanting to rear a family in slavery, during the Christmas season of 1848, the couple planned an escape.[4]

Eventually they had five children together, who were mostly born and reared during their nearly two decades of living in England. The Crafts went there after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed, as they were in danger of being captured in Boston as a prominent fugitive slave couple. Their children were Charles Estlin Phillips (1852-1938), William Ivens (1855-1926), Brougham H. (1857-1920), Alfred G. (1871-1939), and Ellen A. (1863-1917). When the Crafts returned to the United States after the American Civil War, three of their children came with them.[4]

Ellen Craft dressed as a man to escape from slavery.

The escape[edit]

Ellen planned to take advantage of her appearance to pass as white while they traveled by train and boat to the North, with William to act as her slave and personal servant. To carry out this plan, Ellen also had to pass as male, since a single white woman would not have been traveling alone with a male slave in those years. She cut her hair and bought appropriate clothes, traveling in jacket and trousers. She wore her right arm in a sling to hide the fact that she did not know how to write. They traveled to nearby Macon for a train to Savannah. Although the Crafts had several close calls along the way and neither could read nor write, they were successful in evading detection. On December 21, they boarded a steamship for Philadelphia, where they arrived early on the morning of Christmas Day.[5]

Their innovation was in escaping as a pair. Historians have noted other slave women who posed as men to escape, such as Clarissa Davis of Virginia, who dressed as a man and took a New England-bound ship to freedom; Mary Millburn, who also sailed as a male passenger; and Maria Weems from the District of Columbia. She dressed as a man and escaped as a girl of fifteen.[6]

Soon after the Crafts' arrival in the North, abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and William Wells Brown encouraged them to recount their escape in public lectures to abolitionist circles of New England. They moved to the well-established free black community of Beacon Hill in Boston[4] and were married in a Christian ceremony. Ellen Craft posed in her escape clothes for a photograph (the basis for the engraving included with this article), which was widely distributed by abolitionists as part of their campaign against slavery. Like her actions, her image as a man challenged viewers' assumptions about the "fixity of gender, race, normalcy and class."[2] During the next two years, the Crafts made numerous public appearances and recounted their escape. Because society generally disapproved at the time of women speaking to public audiences of mixed gender, Ellen generally stood on the stage while William told their story. An article of April 27, 1849 in the abolitionist paper The Liberator, however, reported her speaking to an audience of 800–900 people in Newburyport, Massachusetts.[7] Audiences were intensely curious about the young woman who had been so bold in escape.

Flight and life in Great Britain[edit]

In 1850, the US Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, making it a federal crime to aid an escaped slave and requiring law enforcement even in free states to aid efforts to recapture fugitives. Bounty hunters and slave catchers sought fees for finding fugitive slaves. William Craft described the new law as "an enactment too infamous to have been thought of or tolerated by any people in the world except the unprincipled and tyrannical Yankees".[citation needed] A month after the new law was effective, Collins sent two bounty hunters to Boston to retrieve the Crafts. Abolitionists in Boston had formed the biracial Vigilance Committee to resist the new Slave Bill; its members protected the Crafts by moving them around various "safe houses" (such as the Tappan-Philbrick house in the nearby town of Brookline[8]) until they could leave the country. Collins appealed to the President of the United States, Millard Fillmore, asking him to intervene so he could regain his property. The President agreed that the Crafts should be returned to their owners in the South, and authorized the use of military force if necessary to take them.[9]

Aided by their supporters, the Crafts decided to escape to England. They traveled from Portland, Maine overland to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they boarded the Cambria, bound for Liverpool. As William later recounted in their memoir, "It was not until we stepped ashore at Liverpool that we were free from every slavish fear". They were aided in England by a group of prominent abolitionists, including Harriet Martineau, who arranged for their intensive schooling at the Ockham School in Surrey. Having learned to read and write, in 1852 Ellen Craft published the following, which was widely circulated in the antislavery press in both Great Britain and the US:

So I write these few lines merely to say that the statement is entirely unfounded, for I have never had the slightest inclination whatever of returning to bondage; and God forbid that I should ever be so false to liberty as to prefer slavery in its stead. In fact, since my escape from slavery, I have gotten much better in every respect than I could have possibly anticipated. Though, had it been to the contrary, my feelings in regard to this would have been just the same, for 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.

Anti-Slavery Advocate, December 1852[10]

The Crafts spent 19 years in England, where they had five children together. Ellen participated in reform organizations such as the London Emancipation Committee, the Women's Suffrage Organization, and the British and Foreign Freedmen's Society.[2] They earned speaking fees by public lectures about slavery in the US and their escape. William Craft set up a business again, but they still struggled financially. For most of their time in England, the Craft family lived in Hammersmith.[11] After the end of the Civil War, Ellen relocated her mother Maria in Georgia and paid for her passage to England, so they were reunited.[2]

Return to the United States[edit]

In 1868, after the American Civil War and passage of constitutional amendments granting emancipation, citizenship and rights to freedmen, the Crafts returned with three of their children to the United States. After raising funds from supporters, in 1870 they bought 1800 acres of land in Georgia near Savannah in Bryan County. There they founded the Woodville Co-operative Farm School in 1873 for the education and employment of freedmen. In 1876 William Craft was charged with misuse of funds, and he lost a libel case in 1878 in which he tried to clear his name. The school closed soon after. Although the Crafts tried to keep the farm running, dropping cotton prices, and post-Reconstruction era violence contributed to its failure. Whites discriminated against freedmen as they worked to re-establish white supremacy in politics and economics.[4]

In 1890 the Crafts moved to Charleston, South Carolina to live with their daughter Ellen, who was married to Dr. William D. Crum, who would be appointed Collector of the Port of Charleston by President Theodore Roosevelt. The elder Ellen Craft died in 1891, and William in January 1900.[4]

Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom[edit]

Their book provides a unique view of race, gender, and class in the 19th century. It offers examples of racial passing, cross-dressing, and middle-class "performance" in a society in which each of these boundaries was thought to be distinct and stable.[10] While originally published with only William's name as author, twentieth-century and more recent scholarship has re-evaluated Ellen's likely contribution, noting the inclusion of material about Sally Miller and other women slaves. Reprints since the 1990s have listed both the Crafts as authors.[4]

Their escape, and particularly Ellen's disguise, which played on so many layers of disguise, showed the interlocking nature of race, gender, and class. Ellen had to "perform" successfully in all three arenas simultaneously for the couple to travel undetected. Since only William's narrative voice tells their joint story in the book, critics say it is suggestive of how difficult it was for a black woman to find a public voice, although she was bold in action. In the way that she used wrappings to "muffle" her during the escape to avoid conversation, Ellen in the book is presented through the filter of William's perspective.[10]

Historians and readers cannot evaluate how much Ellen contributed to the recounting of their story, but audiences appreciated seeing the young woman who had been so daring. On one occasion, a newspaper notes, there was "considerable disappointment" when Ellen Craft was absent.[12] Since they appeared over a period of 10 years, as William recounted their escape, they could respond to audiences' reactions to Ellen in person and to hearing of her actions. It is likely their published account reflects her influence.[10]

Legacy and honors[edit]

  • Their residence in Hammersmith is commemorated by a historic Blue Plaque on the wall of Craft Court, the office of the Shepherds Bush Housing Association.[11]
  • 1996, Ellen Craft was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement.[4]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Ancestry.com. South Carolina, Death Records, 1821-1955 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2008. Original data: South Carolina. South Carolina death records. Columbia, SC, USA: South Carolina Department of Archives and History.
  2. ^ a b c d e Barbara McCaskill, "Ellen Craft: The Fugitive Who Fled as a Planter", Georgia Women: Their Lives and Times, ed. Anne Short Chirhart, Betty Wood, University of Georgia Press, 2009, p. 85, accessed 9 March 2011
  3. ^ Magnusson, Magnus (2006), Fakers, Forgers & Phoneys, Mainstream Publishing, p. 231, ISBN 1-84596-190-0 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Barbara McCaskill, "William and Ellen Craft", New Georgia Encyclopedia, 2010, accessed 9 March 2011
  5. ^ Magnusson 2006, pp. 233, 240
  6. ^ Barbara McCaskill, "Yours Very Truly: Ellen Craft – the fugitive as text and artifact", African American Review, Vol. 28, 1994, cites William Still, The Underground Railroad, 1872, pp. 60–61, 177–89, 558–59, accessed 9 March 2011
  7. ^ "INTERESTING MEETING", The Liberator, 27 April 1849, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, accessed 18 March 2011
  8. ^ National Park Service, Tappan-Philbrick House
  9. ^ Magnusson 2006, pp. 241–242
  10. ^ a b c d Sarah Brusky, "Ellen Craft", Voices from the Gap, University of Minnesota, 2002–2004, accessed 9 March 2011
  11. ^ a b Magnusson 2006, pp. 242–244
  12. ^ National Anti-Slavery Standard, January 30, 1851, p. 141

Further reading[edit]

  • Craft, Ellen; Craft, William; Blackett, R. J. M. (1999) [1860], Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom: Or, The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery, Louisiana State University Press, ISBN 0-8071-2320-X 
  • R. J. M. Blackett, Beating Against the Barriers: Biographical Essays in Nineteenth-Century Afro-American History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986).
  • Sarah Brusky, "The Travels of William and Ellen Craft: Race and Travel Literature in the Nineteenth Century," Prospects 25 (2000): 177–91.
  • Michael A. Chaney, "The Uses in Seeing: Mobilizing the Portrait in Drag in Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom." Fugitive Vision: Slave Image and Black Identity in Antebellum Narrative (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008).
  • Ellen Samuels, "'A Complication of Complaints': Untangling Disability, Race, and Gender in William and Ellen Craft's Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom," MELUS 31 (fall 2006): 15–47.
  • Dorothy Sterling, Black Foremothers: Three Lives (Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1998).
  • Daneen Wardrop, "Ellen Craft and the Case of Salomé Muller in Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom," Women's Studies 33 (2004): 961–84.

External links[edit]