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Ellen and William Craft: the Black Couple Who Disguised Their Way Out of Slavery

During the mid 19th century, lots of slaves had already begun escaping and building abolitionist groups to help others. Henry brown” mailed himself in a wooden crate”, amongst others. But none inspired slaves in the 19th century like Ellen and Williams craft. The married slave couple didn’t flee in terror but fled with comfort and luxury without being detected.

Ellen and William craft
Ellen (disguised as a disabled gentleman traveler) and William (as her slave), as imagined by artist Judith Hunt, www.judithhuntillustrations.blogspot.com

Ellen was the offspring of her biracial mother who was raped by her white master while working as his slave. She had very fair skin and could pass for a pure white. She also bore a striking resemblance to her half-siblings. Ellen’s mistress gave her to her daughter as a wedding present at the age of eleven to rid of her husband’s infidelity, as people frequently mistook Ellen as a member of the family.

Williams was sold off by his first enslaver to settle gambling debts. Before his sale, he witnessed his 14-year-old sister and his parents being separated by sales to different owners at an auction. His new owner apprenticed him as a carpenter and took most of his earnings.

The couple hatched their plan to escape soon after they were married in 1846, when William was 22 and Ellen 20.

The plan, devised by William, was to take advantage of Ellen’s lighter skin and have her pretend to be a wealthy young white man because it was unheard of that women should travel with their male servants. Ellen was initially frightened and wasn’t quite confident in her husband’s plan but decided to take a leap of faith by accepting the idea. They were both special slaves of their masters and didn’t find it difficult to obtain permits for a few days from their masters. In order not to raise alarm and give them time to escape.

Ellen and William Craft: the Couple Who Disguised Their Way Out of Slavery

Williams trimmed Ellen’s hair to neck length. Georgia’s law prohibited slaves from reading or writing so neither Ellen nor Williams could read or write. Therefore Ellen put a Sling on her right arm to prevent her from signing any documents either at the hotel or registry. Increasing their deception, Ellen asked Williams to wrap bandages around her face to hide her smooth skin and limit conversations with strangers. She dressed up in a pair of men’s trousers that she had sewed coupled with a pair of green spectacles and a top hat. With this wise disguise, she would appear sick, somewhat blind, and disabled limiting conversations with strangers. After the carefully crafted plan, they both said a prayer to God and took their first step to freedom.

They both took different paths to the train station to avoid suspicions. Ellen, pretending to be Williams master, bought a ticket for herself and William to savannah.

While boarding the train, they stressed over being discovered after recognizing two people they knew. A cabinet maker Williams once worked for and a friend of Ellen’s enslavers, Mr cray. He sat next to her and Ellen had to feign deafness to avoid talking to him. Realizing the young planter’s inability to hear, Mr cray let her be.

William Craft
William Craft

They arrived at Savannah without being detected then boarded a steamer, headed for Charleston, South Carolina. During breakfast the next morning, the captain attempted to buy Williams from Ellen by warning him about cut-throat abolitionists who might convince Williams to escape. A slave trader also proposed to buy Williams and take him to the deep south but Ellen refused. In Charleston, Williams and Ellen stayed overnight at one of the best hotels and were treated with utmost care.

Although the Crafts had several close calls along the way, they were successful in evading detection. On December 21, they boarded a steamship for Philadelphia, in the free state of Pennsylvania — with the help of the captain, as the ticket seller refused to sell them tickets until the captain intervened — where they arrived early on the morning of Christmas Day.

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As they left the train station, Ellen burst into tears of joy as they were greeted by abolitionists who carried them on to Massachusetts where they met abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and William Wells Brown who encouraged them to recount their escape in public lectures to abolitionist circles of New England.

The couple was later moved to the well-established free black community on the north side of Beacon Hill in Boston, where they were married in a Christian ceremony.

Ellen Craft disguised her way out of Slavery
Ellen Craft posed in her escape clothes for a photograph. It was widely distributed by abolitionists as part of their campaign against slavery.

They received their very first reading lesson on their arrival and a few weeks later, William resumed work as a cabinet maker and Ellen became a seamstress.

During the next two years, the Crafts made numerous public appearances to recount their escape and speak against slavery.

The couple lived a relatively peaceful life until 1850, when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which increased penalties for aiding fugitive slaves and required residents and law enforcement of free states to cooperate in capturing and returning formerly enslaved people to their owners.

A month after the new law was passed, Mrs Ellen craft’s former owner Dr Collins sent two bounty hunters to Boston to capture the Crafts. But upon arriving in Boston they were met with resistance by both white and black Bostonians. Abolitionists in Boston had formed the biracial Boston Vigilance Committee to resist the new Slave Bill; its members protected the Crafts by moving them around various “safe houses”.

Mrs Ellen and William craft later fled across the Atlantic in December that year to England, settling first in Ockham, Surrey, before making their home at 26 Cambridge Grove, in Hammersmith, west London where they had all their five kids.

At their London home, the Crafts helped to organise the London Emancipation Committee as well as travelling Britain giving lectures about abolition, radical reform and social justice.

The couple greatly inspired a lot of fugitives as they shared their story. They became widely known as they spoke at anti-slavery meetings throughout London.

Ellen was also involved in the campaign to gain voting rights for women and supported organisations which helped other enslaved people who had won their freedom.

In 1868, after the American Civil War and passage of constitutional amendments granting emancipation, citizenship and rights to freedmen, the Crafts returned with three of their children to the United States. They raised funds from supporters, and in 1870 they bought 1800 acres of land in Georgia near Savannah in Bryan County. There they founded the Woodville Co-operative Farm School in 1873 for the education and employment of freedmen.

In 1890, the Crafts moved to Charleston, South Carolina to live with their daughter Ellen who was married to Dr William D. Crum, The elder Ellen Craft died a year later in 1891, and her widower William on January 29, 1900.

The couple were honoured with a blue plaque in 2021

The couple’s residence in 26 Cambridge Grove, Hammersmith, London today bears the blue plaque from English Heritage marking their achievements: “Refugees from slavery and campaigners for its abolition lived here”.

London’s famous blue plaques link the people of the past with the buildings of the present. Now run by English Heritage, the London blue plaques scheme was started in 1866 and is thought to be the oldest of its kind in the world.

It was a long, scary, and brave experience for the crafts. Having to brilliantly implement such an ingenious escape plan successfully. The Ellen and William Crafts’ story – which they documented in their book “running a thousand miles for freedom” – remains a testimonial to the intelligence, and courage many African-American slaves brought to their determination to be free from enslavement.

Uzonna Anele
Anele is a web developer and a Pan-Africanist who believes bad leadership is the only thing keeping Africa from taking its rightful place in the modern world.

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