In the mid 19th century in Macon, Georgia, a man and woman fell in love, married and, as many young couples do, began thinking about starting a family. But Ellen and William Craft were both enslaved and were well aware that any of their future children could be ripped away at any moment and sold as property. So, they devised a bold escape plan.
Ellen would travel from Macon, Georgia to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by train—masquerading as a white man and slaveholder. Her husband, William, would pose as her enslaved valet. It was a risky idea, but their background had prepared them for the moment.
Both Faced Separation From Family in Childhood
Ellen was born in 1826, the illegitimate biracial daughter of a slaveholder and a woman enslaved to him, in Clinton, Georgia. Her fair skin and facial features so strongly resembled her father that she was often mistaken as a member of the family, which frustrated the slaveholder’s wife. In response, the wife “gave” Ellen to her daughter—Ellen’s half-sister—in Macon.
William is thought to be born around rural Georgia in 1824. In order for his slaveholder to repay his debts, 16-year-old William, his brother, sister and parents, were torn apart and sold to different slaveholders, with William ending up in Macon.
It was in this southern town that William and Ellen met and later wed, although the specifics remain unknown. What is known is that the pair was determined to have children and live as a free family. Because Ellen shared many resemblances with her father, they decided she could pull off a disguise as a white man. In fact, the idea wasn’t completely novel.
Using Disguise as Escape
“There were other stories of mixed-race enslaved people, enslaved people who looked white, who passed for white,” says Barbara McCaskill, Professor of English at the University of Georgia and author of Love, Liberation, and Escaping Slavery: William and Ellen Craft in Cultural Memory. McCaskill adds there were also other cases of enslaved people disguising themselves in the opposite gender. When it came to escaping the bonds of slavery, black people, she says, “got very creative.”
William worked as a carpenter under his slaveholder, and the majority of his earnings were taken by his owner. But he managed to save enough to finance his and Ellen’s escape. Ellen was a house servant to her half-sister, where she worked as a seamstress, among other domestic duties. With her skills, she was able to stitch her disguise.
Neither William nor Ellen could read or write, since it was forbidden for enslaved people to study. In order to hide her illiteracy, Ellen placed her arm in a sling to avoid drawing attention to herself if any signatures were required along the way. She also covered her face in bandages to hide her feminine features.
“[Both William and Ellen] concoct the story that she is very ill. And she's suffering from some kind of…tooth problem, along with arthritis,” says McCaskill. “At that time, middle of the 19th century, Philadelphia was a medical center in the United States. It was renowned for its hospitals, its spas, its cutting-edge medical practices.”
It was a convenient coverup: A southern white slaveholder, riddled with injuries traveling with his slave to help him on the journey for medical treatment. The mouth injury was also used as an alibi for hiding her voice and possibly talking to anyone and raising flags that she wasn’t who she appeared to be, according to McCaskill.
Both William and Ellen were trusted by their slaveholders, so they were able to acquire travel passes—authorization that allowed enslaved people to travel without fear of being arrested—and avoid raising suspicions as they started their escape in December 1848.
There was a terrifying close call, however, when Ellen, who was traveling as William Johnson, ran into a friend of her slaveholder at the Macon station. Ellen found herself sitting next to the man who was well-acquainted with Ellen in her former life. She worried that her cover would be blown and that both she and William would be killed. At the time, surveillance had been heightened for fugitive enslaved people in the 1820s and ‘30s, following a string of slave revolts.
Luck was on their side, however, and Ellen wasn’t recognized. The pair traveled onward from Macon to Savannah, Georgia and then crossed the state line into Charleston, South Carolina. The duo was so convincing that, according to an account later written by William Craft, Ellen was often advised by passersby to avoid abolitionists since they would look to free William along the way.
“You have a very attentive boy, sir; but you had better watch him like a hawk when you get on to the North,” said a passenger to Ellen on their trip to Charleston, according to William Craft’s book Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery. “He seems all very well here, but he may act quite differently there. I know several gentlemen who have lost their valuable n------- among them [damned] cut-throat abolitionists."
William was also covertly advised by abolitionists to flee as soon as his feet touched free soil. William and Ellen travelled from Charleston via steamer and train to Wilmington, North Carolina and Baltimore, Maryland, among other cities, before finally reaching their destination, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Christmas Day in 1848.
A Life of Freedom and Abolition
News of the escaped couple traveled fast throughout Philadelphia after their arrival. Several local abolitionists immediately offered to help and even started reading and writing lessons on their first day in the city. The pair soon relocated to the safe haven of Boston, Massachusetts where they and other abolitionists continued to tell their story.
“[Abolitionists] understood that one of the most effective weapons that they had to defeat slavery were the stories of formerly enslaved persons themselves. Because these people could vouch for the reality of enslavement,” explains McCaskill.
“They could say, ‘This is how slavery really is, this is what slavery really looks like, on a day-to-day basis, because we lived it.'”
Eventually, William and Ellen Craft moved to England to avoid bounty hunters who sought to profit by recapturing the pair under the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. In England, they were finally able to build the family they had long hoped for, with the birth of their five children. They were also able to live as a truly free family.
“Since my escape from slavery, I have gotten much better in every respect than I could have possibly anticipated,” wrote Ellen Craft in a December 1852 issue of Anti-Slavery Advocate. “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.”
In 1860, William Craft’s narrative of his escape with Ellen was published. The book not only offered a first-hand account of slavery, it also showed what an escaped slave with no background in reading or writing could accomplish in just over a decade of freedom and education.
The Craft's Challenging Return to the U.S.
In 1868, following the end of the American Civil War and the emancipation of enslaved people, the Crafts returned with their three youngest children to the United States. In 1870, with funding help from abolitionists in Boston, the pair established two schools for African Americans—one for adults and one for children—on the border of South Carolina and Georgia. After “night riders,” a precursor to the Ku Klux Klan, burned down both the schools , the Crafts built a new school in Woodville, Georgia.
Woodville became a success, offering people in the black community lessons in math, reading, writing and agriculture. While Ellen and their children focused on teaching, William worked on fundraising to keep the school open. As word of the school’s success grew, it also drew criticism. In 1876, William Craft was accused of misusing funds that were collected to aid the school. McCaskill suspects the accusations stemmed from backlash over the abolition of slavery and the success of the Crafts.
“There was already a lot of anger over the Confederacy's loss to the Union, the arrival of William and Ellen Craft exacerbated those tensions,” says McCaskill. “We'll never know exactly why these rumors arose, probably out of a combination of resentment, that formerly enslaved African-Americans were now able to purchase land [and] have a farm, when all around them there were white farmers whose enterprises had been destroyed by long years of war and famine.”
Although William attempted to sue for libel in 1878, he lost, and his reputation remained tarnished. Not long after the trial, the school closed. The Crafts, having lost their land and fallen further into debt, moved in with their daughter and her husband in Charleston, South Carolina in 1890. Ellen died one year later, and William died in 1900.
While it may seem like a bitter end to an otherwise triumphant story, the Crafts were able to spend their final days surrounded by family—the very reason they had risked their lives to reach freedom a half century earlier.