Ellen and William Craft: The Black Couple Who Escaped Slavery by Disguising Themselves

During the 19th century, the horrific institution of slavery held countless Africans in its oppressive grasp. Many brave individuals risked everything to escape this life of bondage, and among them, Ellen and William Craft stood out as one of the most remarkable and inspiring stories. Their ingenious escape plan, which involved Ellen posing as a wealthy white man, showcased not only their courage but also their intelligence in outwitting the system that sought to keep them enslaved.

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 Craft was born to a biracial mother who had been raped by her white master while she was his slave. Ellen inherited her mother’s fair skin and bore a striking resemblance to her half-siblings, which allowed her to pass as white. As a result, Ellen’s mistress gifted her to her daughter as a wedding present at the age of eleven to rid of her husband’s infidelity.

William Craft, on the other hand, had been sold to settle gambling debts, and he endured the heartbreak of witnessing his 14-year-old sister and his parents being separated by sales to different owners at an auction. Ellen and William’s shared experiences as slaves sparked their desire to escape to freedom together.

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 utilize Ellen’s appearance and have her disguise herself as a wealthy white man traveling with his male slave, William. Although initially hesitant, Ellen decided to trust her husband and take the bold leap towards freedom.

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

To avoid suspicion, William trimmed Ellen’s hair short. Also, since neither of them could read or write due to Georgia’s anti-literacy laws for slaves, Ellen wore a sling on her arm to avoid signing any documents during their journey. She further concealed her appearance by wrapping bandages around her face and donning men’s clothing, including a top hat and green spectacles, to give the impression of a sick and somewhat blind traveler. After the carefully crafted plan, they both said a prayer and took their first step to freedom.

With their ingenious disguises in place, Ellen and William embarked on their journey. They had previously obtained permits for short trips from their masters to avoid raising any alarms and ensure enough time for their escape.

In order to avoid suspicion, Ellen and William took separate routes to the train station. Adopting the role of William’s master, Ellen purchased tickets for both of them to travel to Savannah.

During their journey, they encountered individuals they knew. One such instance involved a close call with a friend of Ellen’s enslavers, but Ellen managed to avoid detection by pretending to be deaf.

William Craft
William Craft

After arriving in Savannah without arousing suspicion, the couple continued their daring journey by boarding a steamer bound for Charleston, South Carolina.

During their time on the steamer, the captain attempted to buy Williams from Ellen by warning him about 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.

Despite numerous close calls, the couple managed to evade detection and reached Philadelphia, a free state, on Christmas Day. There, they were greeted by abolitionists who helped them find sanctuary in Massachusetts. In Massachusetts, the Crafts recounted their incredible escape story to abolitionist circles, inspiring many with their bravery and determination.

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 in London, they continued their advocacy against slavery, speaking at anti-slavery meetings and organizing the London Emancipation Committee. Ellen also championed women’s voting rights and supported other emancipated individuals.

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, Ellen and William Craft relocated to Charleston, South Carolina, where they settled to live with their married daughter, Ellen. Tragically, Ellen Craft, passed away a year later in 1891. Her devoted husband, William, mourned her loss until he himself joined her on January 29, 1900. Their journey together, marked by courage and resilience, had left a profound impact on the fight against slavery and the quest for freedom.

Mr Madu
Mr Madu
Mr Madu is a freelance writer, a lover of Africa and a frequent hiker who loves long, vigorous walks, usually on hills or mountains.

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