American activist Ellen Craft (c. 1826-1897) is known for her remarkable escape from slavery, narrated in Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860). In a daring journey, she posed as a young male slave owner. Craft stands out as a determined and resourceful woman.
Ellen Craft was born about 1826 in Clinton, Georgia, the daughter of a slave named Maria. Her father was Major James Smith, the mother's owner. Often mistaken for a member of her father/master's family, Craft especially incurred the displeasure of her mistress. When she was eleven, Craft was removed from the household and taken to Macon, Georgia, having been made a wedding gift for a Smith daughter. In Macon, she met her future husband, William Craft, also a slave.
William and Ellen Craft are most famous for their remarkable escape from slavery, narrated in Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860). In a daring journey, Ellen posed as a young male slaveowner and William as his slave. The determination to flee came from Ellen. She was particularly adamant about not wanting to bear children into slavery. William noted that being separated from her own mother at an early age had strengthened Ellen's resolve: She had seen so many other children separated from their parents in this cruel manner, that the mere thought of her ever becoming the mother of a child, to linger out a miserable existence under the wretched system of American slavery, appeared to fill her very soul with horror.
At first, the Crafts hoped to avoid the potentiality of such a horror by not marrying until they could escape, but they could devise no plan to flee. They then received their owners' permission to marry and toiled on until December 1848. William stated that it was he who thought of a plan and together they worked out the details. According to another contemporary account, however, Ellen herself proposed the plan of her traveling as white, along with the details of the disguise. In the latter account, it was William who hesitated, with Ellen admonishing him not to be a coward. Whatever the origin of the ideas, Ellen's role was clearly the more difficult one, for she had both to impersonate someone of a different gender and to appear educated. William, on the other hand, was not stepping out of his familiar role, that of a slave.
Plan for Daring Escape
The plan was as follows: Given the great distance they would have to cover, they could not hope to make a successful journey on foot. Since Ellen looked white, however, they might be able to travel by train and other public transportation with William posing as Ellen's slave. She needed to play the role of a male because a white woman would not be traveling alone with a male slave. Suspicion would be aroused in that Ellen would be beardless. She would also be expected to sign in at hotels, something she could not do since she could not write. Her disguise was thus that of a sickly young man whose face was almost completely covered in a poultice of handkerchiefs and whose writing arm was in a cast. She also wore eyeglasses with green shades. With her hair cut short, and wearing men's clothing, she became a most respectable looking gentleman.
The plan succeeded. Traveling primarily by train but with steamer and ferry connections, they went through parts of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. Baltimore, Maryland, was their last stop in slave territory. They reached Philadelphia on Christmas Day 1848. From plan to completion, the trip took eight days.
Despite understandable fears, Ellen carried out her part with fortitude and quick thinking. William states that several times alone with him she burst into tears at the thought of the difficulty of the endeavor. Yet she did not falter when faced with the challenges of maintaining her disguise. For example, when she boarded the train in Georgia, she was terror stricken to see sitting beside her an old white man who knew her well and who had in fact dined at Ellen's owners' home the previous day. Rather than have him recognize her or her voice, she gazed out the window, pretending to be deaf. Forced to say something when the old man talked louder and louder, she answered in a single word, lessening the chances of her voice being recognized.
In Baltimore, threatened with detainment for being without documentation of William's ownership, Ellen questioned the official with more firmness than could be expected. Once they reached the safety of Philadelphia, William remembered Ellen's weeping like a child; he also remembered that "she had from the commencement of the journey borne up in a manner that much surprised us both".
Befriended by Quakers
In Philadelphia, the Crafts were befriended by Quakers and free Black people. At first, Ellen Craft was distrustful of all whites. She did not believe that the Barkley Ivens family, white Quakers, could mean them any good. But the Ivens's generosity and gentle ways convinced her otherwise during the three weeks she and William spent with them recuperating from the strain of the journey. While regaining their strength, the Crafts received tutoring in reading and writing. William noted that both he and Ellen had learned the alphabet by stratagem while enslaved. In their time at the Ivens's home, they began to learn to read and they learned to write their names.
The Crafts then moved on to Boston. They were assisted by abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Parker, and William Welles Brown. Brown arranged appearances for them, sometimes charging an admission fee, an almost unprecedented practice in abolitionist circles. Continuing to develop her skills as a seamstress, Ellen Craft studied with an upholsterer. (She had already made good use of her ability to sew by making the trousers she wore in the escape from Georgia.)
Fled to England
The Crafts remained in Boston two years. They became the center of highly publicized events once again in 1850. They were forced to flee to England because of attempts to return them to slavery by means of the Fugitive Slave Law. Their former owners sent two slavecatchers with warrants for their arrest. William was ready to resist with force if necessary. Abolitionists in the Vigilance Committee of Boston played a strong role in sheltering the Crafts and in helping them get out of the city.
Once again, Ellen Craft showed firm resolve even as she recognized the depth of the danger. Mrs. George Hilliard, who informed Craft of the new threat, wrote: "My manner, which I suppose to be indifferent and calm, betrayed me, and she threw herself into my arms, sobbing and weeping. She, however, recovered her composure as soon as we reached the street, and was very firm ever after".
Before fleeing Boston, the Crafts were married for a second time. Theodore Parker performed this ceremony on November 7, 1850. Because the ports in the Boston area were being watched, the couple went by land to Portland, Maine, and then on to Nova Scotia before they were able to book passage on a steamer from Halifax to Liverpool. They encountered racial prejudice and delays on the journey from Boston to Halifax, but they were finally able to leave American shores.
In England by December 1850, the Crafts continued to evoke interest. An interviewer for Chambers' Edinburgh Journal retold the story of their escape. Although the Crafts were clearly on really free soil for the first time, as the interviewer stated, attitudes toward skin color showed consistency with American views. The interviewer described Ellen Craft as "a gentle, refined-looking young creature of 24 years, as fair as most of her British sisters, and in mental qualifications their equal too." William, on the other hand, was described as "very dark, but of a reflective, intelligent countenance, and of manly and dignified deportment."
For six months after their arrival in England, the Crafts and William Welles Brown (who had gone to England in 1849), gave immediacy to the antislavery cause in travels within England as well as in Scotland. When they attended the Crystal Palace Exhibit in London with Brown several times during the summer of 1851, the ex-slaves were something of an exhibit themselves. White abolitionists made a point of promenading with them "in order that the world might form its opinion of the alleged mental inferiority of the African race, and their fitness or unfitness for freedom".
In the fall of 1851, the Crafts continued their education at the Ockham School near Ripley, Surrey. This was a trade school for rural youth founded by Lady Noel Byron, widow of the poet. The Crafts were able to teach others manual skills as they themselves improved their literacy.
In October 1852, Ellen Craft gave birth to Charles Estlin Phillips. The Crafts had four other children, all born in England: Brougham, William, Ellen, and Alfred. True to her resolve, Ellen Craft bore no children into slavery. And if there were any question about her continued determination to be free, she spoke clearly in a letter published shortly after Charles's birth. In response to rumors that she was homesick for family still enslaved and would like to return to that life, Ellen Craft wrote that she would much rather starve in England, a free woman, than be a slave for the best man that ever breathed upon the American continent.
Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom was published in London, where the Crafts made their home beginning about 1852. William Craft remained a primary spokesman and the more public figure of the two. During the American Civil War, he was active in working against support for the Confederacy, and between 1862 and 1867, he made two trips to Dahomey. Ellen was active in the British and Foreign Freed-men's Aid Society. In November 1865, the Lushingtons, English abolitionists who had helped the Crafts attend the Ockham School, brought Ellen Craft's mother to London.
Returned to U.S.
In 1868 the Crafts returned with two of their children to the United States. After working for a while in Boston, they returned to Georgia, where they purchased land in Bryan County, near Savannah. They opened an industrial school for Black youth. Ellen Craft must have had a major role to play, for she forbade whippings in her school and made the plan that when the parents wanted to whip their children, they should take them into the grave yard, and when they got there to kneel down and pray.
In the 1890s Ellen Craft made her home with her daughter, who had married William Demos Crum, a physician and later United States minister to Liberia. She died in Charleston, South Carolina in 1897. By her request, [Ellen Craft] was buried under a favorite tree on her Georgia plantation. William Craft survived her by several years, dying in Charleston in 1900.
The Crafts' achievements as a couple stand out against the backdrop of more typical examples of the fragmented families in slavery. At the same time, Ellen Craft stands out on her own as a talented, determined, intelligent, resourceful woman.
- Dannett, Sylvia G. L. Profiles of Negro Womanhood, 1916-1900. Educational Heritage, 1964.
- The Mind of the Negro as Reflected in Letters Written During the Crisis, 1800-1860. Edited by Carter G. Woodson. Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1926.
- Nichols, Charles H. Many Thousand Gone: The Ex-Slaves' Account of Their Bondage and Freedom. Indiana University Press, 1963.
- Notable American Women. Harvard University Press, 1971.
- Quarles, Benjamin. Black Abolitionists. Oxford University Press, 1969.
- Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies. Edited by John Blassingame. Louisiana State University Press, 1977.
- Starling, Marion Wilson. The Slave Narrative: Its Place in American History. 2nd ed. Howard University Press, 1988.
- Still, William. Underground Railroad Records. Rev. ed. William Still, 1886.
- We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century. Edited by Dorothy Sterling. Norton, 1984. 62-64.