Craft, Ellen and William

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Craft, Ellen and William

Ellen (18261891) and William (18241900) Craft were fugitive slaves who became known for their dramatic escape to freedom. Ellen Smith was born in Clinton, Georgia, the daughter of a mulatto slave, Maria, and her owner, Major James Smith. At eleven years of age, Ellen was given as a wedding gift to one of Smith's daughters living in Macon, Georgia. She soon met William Craft, a fellow slave and cabinetmaker, and within a few years they began

to plot their escape from bondage. The couple were married in 1846.

Escape from the Deep South was a rare and dangerous undertaking, and the Crafts' plan was bold, creative, and worked out in detail. They first procured passes to visit friends during the Christmas season, when discipline was known to be lax. Their pass was good for several days, so they had time to travel some distance before their absence was noticed. Ellen had a fair complexion, and she posed as an invalid white male traveling north to consult doctors; William impersonated her black slave. She cut her hair, wrapped her head in a bandage, and practiced imitating a man's gait. As a final touch, she wore eyeglasses to disguise her appearance, and because she was illiterate, she held her writing arm in a cast to avoid having to sign her name. This part of the disguise would be crucial when they were forced to sign hotel registers.

The couple left for freedom on December 21, 1848, and traveled by train, steamer, and ferry through Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland, in a journey that involved several near discoveries. Finally, they arrived in Philadelphia, which was free territory, on Christmas day, 1848.

In Philadelphia, Ellen and William Craft stayed with free blacks and Quakers. They were befriended by abolitionist luminaries such as William Wells Brown (c.18141884) and William Lloyd Garrison (18051879), and the Crafts frequently lectured on their dramatic escape on the antislavery circuit. In 1850, however, national events changed their lives dramatically. In that year the Fugitive Slave Law was passed and the Crafts were literally hunted down in Boston by southern slavehunters and driven into exile in England. Their plight became a national issue when President Millard Fillmore insisted that if the laws of the land were not obeyed in Boston, and the Crafts not shipped back to the South, he would use the United States Army to force the issue.

While in England, the Crafts remained active in the abolitionist movement. They went on a speaking tour with abolitionist William Wells Brown, and in 1851 they took a post teaching at the Ockham School, a pioneering trade school that combined classroom work in traditional subjects with farming, carpentry, and other crafts. William Craft also gained a reputation as a public spokesman against slavery, and he made several trips back to the United States to speak out against the Confederacy during the Civil War. Ellen was active in the British and Foreign Freedmen's Aid Society, a missionary organization that organized "civilizing" work in British colonies in Africa and the Caribbean. The Crafts published the story of their escape from slavery, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom,

while in London in 1860. Between 1863 and 1867, William was in Dahomey in West Africa with the Company of African-American Merchants, where he started a school and established commercial ties.

In 1868 the Crafts returned to the United States with two of their five children and settled in Bryan County, Georgia, where they opened an industrial school for black youths. They purchased a plantation in Woodville in 1871, where they continued their school and hired tenant farmers to grow rice, cotton, corn, and peas, which they sold in the Savannah area. By 1877 they had seventy-five pupils, but they were suffering from the financial burden of keeping up the school.

William became a leader in the local Republican Party, ran for the state senate in 1874, and in 1876 represented his district at the state and national Republican conventions. He also spent a good part of his time in the North, raising funds for the school and lecturing to church groups on conditions in the South. Ellen managed the plantation while he was away, negotiated the annual contracts with tenants, and drove their crops to market. But the plantation never prospered, and northerners, in the mood for reconciliation with the South, were less forthcoming with donations to the experimental school. Rumors spread by the Crafts' enemies suggesting that they were living off the largess of naive northern philanthropists did not help their project, and they eventually gave up the school. Around 1890 they left the Woodville plantation and moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where they remained for the rest of their lives. In 1996, Ellen Craft was named a Georgia Woman of Achievement.

See also Abolition; Brown, William Wells; Runaway Slaves in the United States


Blackett, R. J. M. Beating the Barriers: Biographical Essays in Nineteenth-Century Afro-American History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986.

Brusky, Sarah. "The Travels of William and Ellen Craft: Race and Travel Literature in the Nineteenth Century." Prospects: An Annual Journal of American Cultural Studies 25 (2000): 177192.

Clift-Pellow, Arlene. "Ellen Craft." In Notable Black American Women, edited by Jessie Carney Smith. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1992.

McCaskill, Barbara. "'Yours Very Truly': Ellen CraftThe Fugitive as Text and Artifact." African American Review 28, no. 4 (1994): 509529.

Sterling, Dorothey. Black Foremothers, 2d ed. New York: Feminist Press, 1988.

sabrina fuchs (1996)