Thursday, July 17, 2014

Slave Fugitives: Ellen and William Craft

Ellen and William Craft 

The escape from slavery of Ellen and William Craft is a remarkable story.  They were husband and wife.  When they fled when they were both 22 years old.  Ellen was very light skinned.  She was the daughter of her master.  Her master’s wife always resented her, and when her daughter married, gave her as a wedding gift, who was moving to Macon, Georgia. 
William cut off Ellen’s hair.  She was going to pose as a Southern master, accompanied by her slave.  To hide her lack of facial hair, she was going to cover her face with a toothache handkerchief.  To hide her inability to write she would wear a sling.  With trousers, boots, necktie and jacket she almost looked the part.  She had William also buy green shaded glasses to hide her pretty eyes. 
Her husband wore his normal work clothes, and added a fancy beaver skin hat.
Their escape attempt was from the deep South, Macon Georgia.  It was difficult to escape from so far south so they had devised a bold plan.  This plan would require them to make several changes of transportation modes, and buy several different tickets. 
They traveled just before Christmas 1848.  Both had passes.  Ellen’s half-sister wrote her a pass, and William got one from the cabinetmaker who employed him.  They had to travel in separate cars—William in the slave car and Ellen in the regular car.  Their biggest chance of being caught was the first leg, where they may be recognized.  Ellen recognized someone in the train station, but they did not recognize her.  He tried to make conversation, but she refused to say anything feeling he would recognize her voice.  The cabinet maker became suspicious and came to the train station.  He was about to check the Negro car when the train departed. 
The train took them to Savannah.  There they took a steamboat to South Carolina.  There was a berth for her, “Mr. Johnson” but none for her husband.  There was no room for black passengers to sleep. 
The next morning Ellen brought her husband to the breakfast table, insisting she needed help because of her arm.  She allowed her slave to eat the scraps.  Several of the passengers were disappointed in her treatment of her slave, feeling he would be spoiled. 
They had other close escapes along the way.  They had to sign for transportation in Charleston, which was difficult as “Mr. Johnson” did not write.  He referred to his arm, and was told to use the other arm.  Fortunately the passenger who was telling “Mr. Johnson” to treat his slave more roughly vouched for him, as the line was backing up. 
Other passengers complained of the good treatment of “Mr. Johnson’s” slave.  One passenger tried to pick a fight, “You are spoiling your nigger by letting him wear such a devilish fine hat.”
They finally made it to Baltimore.  There was one last test.  It was required that Mr. Johnson prove that the slave was his, as there were reports of whites transporting fugitive slaves.  However the train was about to depart.  They had purchased tickets in Charleston through to Philadelphia.  Because “Mr. Johnson” was not well, they let him pass with just enough time to board the train. 
They traveled and settled in Boston, where they were hailed as heroes.  They went on the talk circuit.  However, with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, they did not feel safe, and continued on to England.

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