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#AceHistoryDesk Risking their lives for liberty and for love, Ellen and William Craft devised a bold plan: They’d don disguises — she as a white man — and embark on the perilous journey north.
She dresses by candlelight. All around are the tools of her trade as a seamstress — workbaskets stocked with needles and thread, pins, scissors, cloth. Her husband’s handiwork is in evidence as well: wood furniture, including a chest of drawers, now unlocked.
Ellen slips her feet into gentleman’s boots, thick-soled and solid. Though she has practiced, they must feel strange, an inch of leaden weight pulling each sole to the ground, an extra inch she needs. Ellen may have inherited her father’s pale complexion, but not his height. Even for a woman, she is small.
William towers beside her, casting long shadows as he moves. They must do something with her hair, which he has just cut — gather it up, pack it. To leave it behind would be to leave a clue.
There are the final touches: a silky black cravat, also the bandages. Ellen wears one around her chin, another around her hand, which she props in a sling. She has more protection for her face, green-tinted glasses and an extra-tall silk hat. These additions hide her smoothness, her fear, her scars.
Ellen stands, at the center of the floor, now transformed. To all appearances, she is a sick, rich, white young man — “a most respectable-looking gentleman,” in her husband’s words. He is ready too, in his usual pants and shirt, with only one new item: a white, secondhand beaver hat, nicer than anything he has worn before, the marker of a rich man’s slave.
To think it had been a matter of days — four days since they had first agreed to the idea, first called it possible. Four days of stuffing clothing into locked compartments, sewing, shopping, mapping the way. Four days to prepare for the run of a lifetime.
William blows out the light.
They kneel and pray in the sudden dark.
They stand and wait, breath held.
Is that someone listening, watching outside? Just beyond their door is the back of the Collins house, where Master and Mistress should be asleep in bed.
The young couple, holding hands, step to the front of the cottage, as gently as they can. William unlocks the door, pushes it open, peers out. There is just the circle of trees, a whispering of leaves. Such stillness; he thinks of death. Nevertheless, he gives the sign to go.
Spooked, Ellen bursts into tears. They had borne witness to people torn by bloodhounds, beaten and branded, burned alive. They had seen the hunts, the frenzy around a slave chase. All this, they know, might be in store for them. They draw back in, holding each other one more time.
The couple, who had been married two years earlier, in a ceremony unrecognized by law, need to part ways, to begin their journey on separate paths through Macon. William will take the shortest route available and hide aboard the train. It would be a danger for them both if he were recognized. The dangers may be even greater, though, for Ellen, who must travel a longer road. It would be bad enough for her to be caught trying to escape at all. How much worse for Master Collins to awake to learn that his wife’s favored lady’s maid dared to be a gentleman like him?
Now silent, Ellen centers herself in prayer, in the faith that she will move by as she battles for mastery over every inch of the one thousand miles to come: faith in a power greater than any earthly master, such as she will pretend to be. Stilled, she owns the moment.
“Come, William,” she speaks.
Once more, the door opens. The two step out, their footfalls soft, like light on water. They creep across the yard, to the street, near the house of the sleeping slavers. With a touch of hands, they part.
When they next meet — or so they hope — they will take their places as master and slave, escaping to reunite as husband and wife.
William waited in the Negro car, closest to the engine, with its flying sparks and noxious fumes. The car more resembled a freight carrier than a carriage, transporting luggage alongside enslaved people — some of whom, like William, accompanied their enslavers, others who traveled to be sold.
As dawn began to break, the station filled with travelers bound for Savannah. Ensconced quietly in the only car where a Black man was supposed to sit, William carried the cottage key and a pass. And he, or perhaps Ellen, carried a pistol. On this morning, William had to hope that they would not need to use it. He himself had resolved to kill or be killed, rather than be captured.
Traffic at the station thinned as travelers crowded about the train, ready to board. They said their goodbyes. For enslaved riders, this may have been the last time they would see the faces of loved ones, if their loved ones even had permission to see them off.
With the engine fed and the water tank full, the conductor made his final calls. William dared to peek outside. Linked to him, he knew, if only by way of rickety clasps between the cars, was Ellen, who by this time should have been seated in first class. It would be difficult for William to see her before the train stopped. But briefly, William could glimpse the ticket booth, where Ellen, as his master, would have purchased two tickets.
Instead of his wife, he saw another familiar figure hurrying up to the ticket window. His heart dropped. The man interrogated the ticket seller, then pushed his way through the crowd on the platform, with purpose. It was William’s employer — not his legal enslaver, but another white man who “rented” William’s labor in a cabinet shop. This man, who had known William since childhood, scanned the throng as he approached the cars.
The cabinetmaker was coming for him.
Beneath the tall hat, tinted spectacles, and poultices, Ellen’s features were barely visible. Her eyes of variable color (brown to some, hazel to others), the heart-shaped outline of her face, her smooth chin — all were obscured. Anyone looking at her from behind a ticket counter would see a sickly young man of privilege, maybe traveling home from college.
In the low voice she had rehearsed, with as confident a posture as she could muster, she requested passage for herself and her slave.
The ticket seller handed her stubs of paper, marked on one side with the names of the stations she would pass. As she could not read, literacy being forbidden to the enslaved, she would have to track her route by listening vigilantly to the calls of the conductor. Fortunately, Savannah was the last stop on this line. If the ticket seller had asked her to sign her name, he did not actually make her do it, seeing from the look of her arm and her troubled bearing that Mr. Johnson, as Ellen would call herself, was disabled.
There was the luggage to tend to — possibly a bandbox or carpet bag, light enough for Ellen to have carried on her “good” arm, but also, more problematically, a trunk, or even a pair of trunks. No one would have guessed the contents, certainly not the porter who assisted her on this day. Stored deep within the folds of this baggage was a full set of a slave woman’s clothes. The porter was known to Ellen — it was said that he had once asked her to marry him. This man now called her “Young Master” and thanked her for the tip she gave him — a parting gift, as he could not have known, from someone he had once loved.
Ellen boarded as swiftly as an invalid could be expected to move, choosing an empty seat by a window and fixing her gaze outside. East Macon lay before her. If all went well, she would soon behold the vast sculpted mounds where generations of Native people, including the Muscogee, or Creek, had once lived, prayed, and buried their dead. Now, rail tracks ran through the sacred grounds. One of the two principal contractors who had supervised the construction, five years earlier, was none other than Dr. Robert Collins, the husband of Ellen’s biological half-sister — the half-sister to whom Ellen had been gifted as a wedding present at age 11.
Now it was Ellen’s time. She had moved by her own will through Macon, unrecognized. She had convinced the ticket seller that she was a gentleman worthy of first class. She had paid for herself and her slave. She had crossed key lines by which people commonly defined themselves and judged others — race, gender, class, and ability — all before dawn. And if everything went well, she would escape on a route built and paid for by the lives and labor of enslaved men, women, and even children.
As she waited for the train to leave Macon, Ellen knew she could count on nothing after this ride. If she returned, she would probably be in chains. If she succeeded, she was unlikely to see her loved ones again — excepting, if prayers could be answered, William.
A movement at one of the exits drew Ellen’s attention: a familiar form, among the last she would hope to encounter. The cabinetmaker from William’s shop peered into her car. He saw her, yet he did not register her — she was, after all, a suited white man, not the slave he sought. He turned abruptly to leave.
Beneath her hat, Ellen exhaled. She had not been detected — it was another successful passing — but her only companion, the love of her life, might soon be.
There was little she could do but wait and pray that she did not hear shouting from the cars next door.
Map made in 1848 outlining railroad lines between Macon and Savannah, Georgia.From Library of Congress
In the Negro car, William drew his beaver hat low and shrank into the farthest corner. He turned his face from the exit, waiting for the man to come.
William had seen the cabinetmaker checking the cars; it was only a matter of time before the man arrived to drag him out. How he and Ellen might have revealed themselves or how this man came to know they had run, William had no clue, but he was certain that their plot had been uncovered.
He listened, sound being his best available guide. Would the man go after Ellen first? There was no noise to suggest that there was any turmoil. What he heard instead was the blissful ringing of the bell, and he was startled by the sensation of movement. The journey to Savannah had begun.
As the train lurched forward, Ellen’s attention remained at the window, her gaze turned out. Her husband had not appeared on the platform, hauled out as a runaway. No one had fired a shot. Instead, there was just the cabinetmaker, heading away from the train.
Later, Ellen would learn that the man had a funny feeling that morning that his trusted assistant was on the run, and followed his instincts to the depot. He had little time and only managed to scan the tracks and a few cars, entirely missing the Negro car before the train took off, but left satisfied, believing he had been anxious for naught.
Ellen could finally get her bearings. It was a rough ride. The seats were hard and thin, scarcely blunting the blows of the “mad dragon,” as Charles Dickens had described American trains. The air was stale and rank, reeking of tobacco freely smoked, chewed, spat on the floor.
Ellen turned from the window where, in the summers, travelers would lean out or even hang out their feet, eager to touch cool, fresh air. It was then, as she shifted her gaze, that she first became aware that someone was sitting right beside her — someone she knew. In fact, she had seen him the night before at a dinner he had attended as a guest at the Collins home.
The old man greeted her brightly.
“It is a very fine morning, sir,” he said, as pleasant as can be.
Scott Cray was no stranger to this route. A longtime resident of Darien, Georgia, Cray had known Ellen since she was a child — which is why, Ellen now suspected, he may have been tasked with her return.
The old man sat so close to her, she was sure that he had been summoned. After all, he had been Collins’s guest just the night before. If anyone could recognize her and engineer her return, Scott Cray could.
He repeated his question, with more volume and urgency: “It is a very fine morning, sir!”
Removing herself was not an option, so should she answer him? What if he pressed on and asked her for information about herself, as a gentleman was likely to do? Could she manage the conversation without giving herself away? If he did not know her yet, would he know her by her voice?
Ellen, in that moment, decided upon a course of action that might have cost her a beating or even her life as an enslaved woman — one that she hoped would save her instead. She ignored him, pretending to be deaf.
A portrait of Ellen Craft from 1872 (left) next to a portrait of her disguised as a white man when she escaped from her enslaver in Georgia.Image on the left from the New York Public Library; image on the right from Boston African American National Historic Site/National Park Service
Cray was not pleased. The young man beside him, who took no notice of a fellow gentleman sitting down, continued to stare fixedly out the window, despite two greetings.
Still no answer. Other passengers looked on with amusement; one laughed out loud. Now Cray was annoyed.
“I will make him hear,” he vowed, before repeating, “It is a very fine morning, sir,” his voice ringing through the car.
At last, the young gentleman turned toward him, bowed politely, and uttered a single word — not “Yes, sir,” but “Yes” — before returning his gaze to the window.
From across the seat, a fellow traveler offered the old man an exit, and inadvertently, perhaps, the young one as well. It is “a very great deprivation to be deaf,” he observed.
“Yes, and I shall not trouble that fellow any more,” Cray agreed, his pride mollified. The men went on to chat about popular subjects among their class: slaves, cotton, abolitionists.
Abolitionists! Ellen had heard this word before, from the lips of those who would have her believe that abolitionists were people who meant her harm. As the train moved forward and the conversation continued, the meaning of the word transformed, indicating to Ellen that she was not alone in her quest for freedom or in believing in her right to be free.
The Crafts arrived in the North on Christmas Eve, after a grueling four-day journey, primarily by rail and steamboat. But they did not disappear into Canada, as originally planned. It was the couple’s first major decision in their precarious freedom, and they agreed to make Boston their destination. The city had a strong Black community and a vocal, multiracial activist community. Indeed, among opponents, it was known as a hotbed of raging abolitionists.
Even so, they were fugitive slaves by law. Any public appearance put them in danger. Eschewing the guaranteed path to their own safety, they opted for a riskier road, setting a pattern for years to come.
Their course was further altered when they met William Wells Brown — another fugitive from slavery, and a seasoned, charismatic orator. On the page, on the stage, in song, and, above all, in person, Brown — best-selling author and “star lecturer” of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society — was a virtuosic storyteller.
When he learned of the Crafts’ escape, he was immediately intrigued. Passing and disguise were not novel to Brown, who had once helped an enslaved man flee in a white woman’s mourning garb, veiled and elegant. But here was a fugitive love story, a romance, one sure to boost the antislavery cause.
Brown invited William and Ellen to join him on the abolitionist lecture circuit, to share their story as only they could, together.
One of their greatest tests came at Boston’s celebrated Faneuil Hall, where atop the classical brick hall, with its floors of arched windows ablaze on a January night, perched a glittering, glass-eyed grasshopper, slowly spinning with the winds: a whimsical weathervane, with a time capsule planted in its belly.
It was the 17th annual convention of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. That evening, the vast and brilliantly lit space, often crammed with standing spectators, was laid out in orderly fashion with rows of settees, or low-backed benches, that would allow for ladies to spread their skirts. It was to be a “promiscuous” crowd — meaning mixed gender — as well as mixed race. Above, balconies allowed for even more spectators. Slipping into the throng on the main floor, likely incognito until the time was right, William and Ellen were surrounded on all sides, across the floor and up to the balconies, by antislavery advocates of many colors.
Onstage, Brown conveyed the outlines of the young couple’s journey. Then, the moment his instincts told him it was right, he summoned the Crafts to join him.
Seeing them, the audience reacted as if an electric current ran through the hall. Eyes widened, bodies turned, and the space rang with thunderous applause. Feeling the tempo, the crowd’s pulse, Brown prepared to raise it all even higher. He would put forth three questions “that they might be answered in hearing of these fugitives.”
First, he called: “All present who will help return a slave to his bondage, will please to say yes.”
For the Crafts, this was their worst nightmare, especially when a voice, lone but distinct, called “Aye!” from a settee at the back of the hall. Ignoring it, Brown pushed on.
Second: “All who would stand still, and do nothing, for or against him, will please to say yes.”
Now there was not a word.
Third, Brown cried, “All who would aid in protecting, rescuing, and saving him from slavery, will say yes.” And the hall exploded, resounding with a chorus of voices, rising together in waves of affirmation — an “immense and prolonged assent” that washed over the stage, over William and Ellen, again and again, an “everlasting yea.” It was a sustained sound, surely unlike any the couple had heard before.
From an activist’s point of view, the attention this bright young couple received could not have been better for the cause. And yet, to the fugitives themselves, the spotlight was no doubt concerning. For the words that Brown had spoken in Boston radiated out through the press to travel the country far and wide, reaching back down South.
On a mid-February morning, Ellen’s former enslavers, the Collinses, woke to a story in their local paper. There they were: “A good-looking mulatto man, and a still better looking almost white girl, with straight hair, lately escaped from their master in Georgia” were now in Boston “as man and wife.” Lest there be any doubt, the paper noted that the slaves would be recognized at once as those belonging to Robert Collins and Ira Taylor.
A few blocks above the offices of the Georgia Telegraph, in a mansion high on Mulberry Street, the Collinses were forced to reckon with these words on the page — and with Ellen, who had not only run away but also had done so in the most scandalous way.
The challenge was what to do next. Collins, a stickler for order, believed that “regularity and a strict adherence to the rules” were essential for slave management. He knew, as he would express later, that Ellen’s successful escape was sure to inspire others. But he also knew how difficult it would be to seize the Crafts from their home base in Boston, which was known as an abolitionist stronghold.
For many months, he took no action. Then came the passage of the new Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which granted him and other enslavers what scholar Ibram X. Kendi has called “octopus powers, allowing their tentacles to extend to the North.” With this law, people such as Collins could reach long into other states, on their own or with proxies, and, bypassing state officials, appeal to federally appointed commissioners who had outsized powers. With no testimony allowed from the alleged fugitives, these United States commissioners could send people such as the Crafts (or those who might be mistaken for them) back to slavery. They would earn $10 for every positive judgment, $5 for dismissals.
The octopus law had outrageous reach, affecting everyone from judges, to ordinary citizens, to Southern refugees, to anyone who might be pointed out as a slave, as property — and, as Ellen’s case reminded all, whether visibly Black or not. There was no due process, no jury for the “accused,” no rights of habeas corpus, simply the enslavers’ word and eyewitness affirmations.
An alert distributed by abolitionists in Boston in 1851.From the Associated Press
Now, more than ever, every Black person in the United States of America — formerly enslaved or freeborn — was in danger, since, with no means of self-defense, any Black person might be kidnapped into slavery. To each, it came down to a terrible calculus: stay (to hide, wait, or fight) or leave the country.
In Boston, many disappeared. As quietly as they came, with hard-earned belongings, with loved ones or alone, with history and urgency, Black people slipped out of that city upon a hill, by train, foot, carriage. Some were mothers and fathers with babies in their arms, determined that their children would never see the world they had left. Some were seasoned elders, others young and Northern-born.
Most did not leave their names, their stories, but they left holes. Within 24 hours of the law’s passage, the Rev. Theodore Parker reported, more than 30 Black Bostonians were gone from the city. In the coming years, 20,000 refugees would escape from the United States to Canada in what has been called an unprecedented mass “exodus.”
The choice came to William and Ellen. They, too, knew what would be wagered in this war and the cruelties that might await them if recaptured into the South — physical torture, but also permanent separation from each other. But in their time in the North, they had gained friends and allies, and emerged as influential antislavery activists.
Together with others in their community, demanding the freedom that should have been their birthright, the Crafts would stand their ground in their own, new American revolution.
An engraving of the Boston Court House during a trial regarding a fugitive from slavery.Boston public library
The warrants for William and Ellen Craft were delivered in an open court in Boston, one ablaze with excitement.
Almost as soon as he had gained his “octopus powers,” Robert Collins, joined by William’s enslaver, had dispatched two white Georgian men — Willis Hughes, the Macon jailor, along with John Knight, who had worked alongside William in the cabinetmaking shop — to recapture the Crafts.
If the Southerners nurtured any hope of keeping their mission a secret, it must have vanished the moment they emerged from the Boston courthouse, warrants in hand. As far as they could see were men and women, Black and white, mixed together in a spectacle of protest.
Most shocking to Hughes was the presence of a well-dressed white man on a street corner, lifted high atop a dry-goods box, who urged the “Negroes and their friends” to arm themselves with Bowie knives, daggers, and pistols. Resist unto death! he exhorted. “Shoot down all slave catchers from the South” — disturbing signs of troubles to come.
By noon, signs flew all over Boston’s streets:
TO THE RESCUE!
Three fugitives about to be ARRESTED!!
WM. CRAFTS supposed to be one.
BE ON THE ALERT!
No time to be lost!
The third fugitive, one William Jones, soon left for Canada. Some of the Crafts’ friends urged them to flee as well. They were too much in the light — a temptation for bounty hunters, as well as a trophy for slavers if they were caught. This, however, was exactly why the couple resolved to stay, for if even they could be chased out or captured, what hope was there for anyone else?
A poster warning of slave hunters searching for the Crafts in Boston in 1850.from Swann Auction Galleries
William Craft had seen people he had known and cared for chased down and tortured by men like Willis Hughes. But this was not the South. Here in Boston, William was named in census records as a business owner, a property owner. He vowed to face down any and all who tried to rob him, for his own sake and for his people — to “live free or die.”
Making his furniture shop his fort, his clothes and bed moved alongside his workbench, doors barred, he set himself calmly to work, a pair of pistols and a Bible by his side — full protection, body and soul. Reporters would describe him as a “Spartacus of his race” or “champion of his people,” ready “to sell his freedom with his life,” a hero for his times. Ellen wanted to stand beside William in the resistance but was finally persuaded to remain in hiding “for his sake” — and perhaps for the cause.
Outside William’s store on Cambridge Street, friends stood guard. Newspapers reported that “no man could approach within a hundred yards of Craft’s shop without being seen by a hundred eyes, and a signal would call a powerful body at a moment’s warning.”
In the following days, the Colored Citizens, as members of Boston’s Black community declared themselves, convened at the African Meeting House, William among them, even as slave hunters were known to be near. Together the community resolved again to “resist unto death,” their voices rising in chorus with others who made like promises across the land, in towns small and large, in churches, halls, and kitchens. On one historic night, 200 souls would pledge their lives to defend Ellen and William.
The Georgian slave hunters soon felt the force of this collective resistance all over Boston. They could hardly step from their hotel before street boys pelted them with refuse, screaming obscenities. Others stalked them, throwing stones alongside the boys. The cries went up everywhere: “Slave hunters!” “Thieves!” “Bloodhounds!” Worse for them was still to come.
They emerged from a courthouse in Boston to behold a vast, multiracial army of men, women, and children — about 2,000 people, by John Knight’s estimate — together shouting the refrain that Knight had come to loathe: “Slave hunters! Slave hunters! There go the slave hunters!” Some called for feathers and tar.
A hackney coach soon drove up with a pair of white horses, wild with excitement. With the sheriff pushing through the crush, Hughes managed to jump inside, but “not without losing his hat and getting somewhat hustled about.” Knight, meanwhile, was caught behind and forced to retreat, as protesters hissed and jeered, and tried to break the carriage doors. Eyewitnesses would vividly recall the scene: The crowd became like one body, single-minded, with long, strong arms, as it covered the coach and rocked it from side to side, intent on taking the passenger. One man, a journalist wrote, smashed open a window, aimed his weapon, and, for a quivering moment, had Hughes within his sights. But another protester pulled him down. The driver raised his whip and cracked it high, and with that, the coach convulsed forward, doors akimbo, people hanging off all sides.
The carriage clattered over the Craigie Bridge, speeding through the toll, driver and rider hoping that the fare would deter the protesters, who clung hard. Above all the others, one “colored man” straddled the roof, riding “in triumph through the streets of Cambridge.” It was protest in motion.
Only many miles later, in a landscape of cattle markets, slaughterhouses, and racetracks, did the carriage at last outrun the protesters, rolling to a stop at Porter’s Tavern in North Cambridge. But the driver, spooked by the ordeal, refused to continue service, leaving Hughes to find his own way back to Boston, where he finally reunited with Knight at the United States Hotel, their Boston headquarters.
The Georgians were reluctant to leave these grounds. They had launched from Macon as heroes and expected to return triumphant, captives in hand. Instead, they had been the ones heckled by Bostonians of all colors — chased, ridiculed, spat upon, hunted down by men, women, and children. Meanwhile, Boston’s higher society mocked them for being uneducated, low class, trash, as if it were they, and not the ones they were there to capture, who dwelled at the bottom of the world.
For these two men — who came from a world where the movement of Black people was strictly curtailed, where even a free Black person carrying firearms stood to “receive upon his bare back thirty-nine lashes,” when to harm the body of a white person was a capital crime — it was truly a world turned upside down.
For All of the next day, the Georgians were distracted with calls from visitors. First came 100 white men, by Knight’s count, who tried to intimidate them into leaving town; next a committee of 16, who warned that a mob would strike. The visitors were sent away by the hotel proprietors, who remained committed to their unpopular guests.
Determined to be hunter, not prey, yet having lost sight of his targets, Hughes went to the marshal’s office, where he could learn nothing. Then the Georgians were bombarded.
It was as if the would-be slave hunters carried placards on their backs, announcing, “Arrest Us.” No sooner would they soothe their spirits with a little tobacco, when they were slapped for “smoking in the streets” (which, where they came from, was a punishable offense for Blacks). Exclamations of distress led to charges of “profane swearing and cursing.” Hughes’s disastrous coach flight into Cambridge resulted in more accusations of toll jumping and “fast driving.” The Georgians faced further reprimands for carrying concealed weapons. The worst was the fun that locals seemed to be having at their expense. As one paper expressed, tongue in cheek: “Truly the Bostonians are a law-abiding people!”
Boston’s United States Hotel, where the slave hunters from Georgia stayed.Boston Public Library
Early on the morning of October 30, a white abolitionist minister and friend to the Crafts, the Rev. Theodore Parker, called on the Georgians at their hotel, warning that they would not be safe here another night, and offering “safe conduct” — an offer the men refused. The doors of the hotel remained under surveillance all that day. It was reported that the slave hunters never came out. Only later was it announced that they had left by the 2 o’clock train. The news was baffling to those on patrol, since no men fitting Hughes’s and Knight’s descriptions had passed through. This led to speculation that they must have escaped using the same strategy that Ellen had: by using the mantle of gender to become invisible, and waltzing by as two ladies, past watchful eyes on the lookout for only two men.
Before leaving, Hughes had a message sent by telegraph to his employer in Macon. Transmitted in cool, raspy taps: The “negroes were secreted.” Hughes would head for New York City to await further instruction. Collins would have to appeal to higher authorities to reclaim Ellen as his property, a move he was not afraid to make. Indeed, his next step would be to enlist the help of the United States president.
The Crafts had survived their attempted capture, this time. But they didn’t know how quickly their would-be captors would rally. For William and Ellen, it came to another excruciating decision. “Live free or die” may have been their motto, but with troops rumored to be heading their way, many more lives would be on the line than just their own, including those of the 200 friends who had pledged to defend them to the death. Meanwhile, a new English friend, George Thompson, gave fresh support for a third alternative: not living free or dying in America, but living freely and boldly abroad.
England was famed for freedom ever since James Somerset (who had been enslaved by both a Virginian and a Bostonian) claimed liberty on British shores in a landmark 1772 ruling. In the queen’s dominion, as the Crafts were assured, they would find true friends. With them, the Crafts could continue the antislavery resistance.
Even before others pressed them, William had already begun thinking it would be best to leave the country on “his wife’s account,” as their friend Samuel May, a white abolitionist, would recall. If Ellen had deferred to William’s wishes previously, it seems he may now have been attentive to hers. But the future of their children may have been the strongest motivation of all.
Whether or not they were expecting a child at this time, as a friend later suggested they were, they wished to live in a country where “we and our dear little ones can be truly free,” with “no one daring to molest us or make us afraid.” The determination to have a family on their own terms had launched them on their original journey of mutual self-emancipation out of Macon, Georgia, but it was now evident that this travel was still not over — that it was not from the South, but from the United States of America that they needed to run.
Ilyon Woo will discuss her new book at the Harvard Book Store at 7 p.m. on January 23 in a free event.Handout image
With this revised reality, a continuing spirit of adventure and improvisation, and their love for each other as a guide, the Crafts pivoted with full force. They would leave the “land of the free” for an alternate promised land, passing through Canada en route to England.
But before they went, they wanted to execute one last, critical, dangerous move, requiring an accomplice. Their good friend William Cooper Nell, a Black historian and activist, hurried to the house of the Rev. Parker to ask this favor: Would the minister marry them tomorrow?
Ilyon Woo, who lives in Cambridge, is the author of “The Great Divorce” and a winner of a Whiting Creative Non-Fiction Grant. Adapted from the forthcoming book “Master Slave Husband Wife” by Ilyon Woo to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2023 by Ilyon Woo. Printed by permission.
This account draws from newspapers; the Crafts’ 1860 narrative, “Running A Thousand Miles for Freedom”; and many other primary and secondary sources. Send comments to email@example.com.
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