William and Ellen Craft: New book by Ilyon Woo tells story of enslaved couple that used disguise to reach Philadelphia

On the morning of December 20, 1848, William and Ellen Craft began their nearly 1,000-mile journey to freedom. The enslaved couple planned to escape from Macon, Georgia, based on a daring gambit: Ellen could pass as a wealthy, sickly white man and William as his slave.

The craftsmen slowly and carefully put together the disguises: a white shirt, an ill-fitting waistcoat, a loose coat, trousers that Ellen had made herself, thick-soled boots that gave her an extra inch of height, green. glasses and a silky black cravat represent wealth. Ellen put it all on before leaving their shared cottage before dawn. When she arrived at the train station that day, she bought herself and William train tickets in broad daylight that would take them to the free city of Philadelphia. No one stopped him.

The couple’s odyssey is chronicled in Ilion Wu’s new book, The Master Slave Wife , published Tuesday by Simon & Schuster. Wu will be at the Parkway Central Library on Thursday to discuss the amazing saga.

“I think this story (maybe) was hard for us to remember because it didn’t give us easy closure,” Wu said. “It was an all-America affair, and people in the North had to make choices as much as people in the South. I think the fact that there was no easy ending to deter everyone makes it a difficult story for us to reckon with nationally.”

While many antebellum slaves made headlines for their daring escapes—most notably William “The Box” Brown, who sent himself to Philly abolitionists in a wooden crate—this real escape could only have been accomplished by artisans. Their plan played to each of their strengths and some dark family history.

William and Ellen had different masters, but both were skilled, urban slaves. A long-time apprentice of a Macon cabinet maker, William struck a deal with his owner, Ira Hamilton Taylor, to allow him to pocket a small portion of his salary from his job in the city. The rest, of course, went back to Taylor. And Ellen was a talented seamstress owned by her half-sister Eliza Collins. Before that, their father, James Smith, was Ellen’s master. He still had his mother, Maria, whom Ellen abused when she was a teenager.

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This uncomfortable reality of slavery meant that Ellen was often mistaken for a very pale and white woman. But traveling as a white woman with a male slave would raise eyebrows, so she posed as a man with rheumatism instead. Thus, no one questions the bandages on his face, the extra mask that hides his hairless face, or the sling that holds his arm, which, because he is illiterate, prevents him from signing at hotels or train stations. signing his name. Above all, the conductors and other passengers were not inclined to pester the sick gentleman on board with pleasantries or difficult questions, as the craftsmen correctly predicted.

Four days and three trains later, the artisans arrived in Philadelphia. On Christmas Eve, while riding in the carriage to the boarding house, Ellen “wept like a baby” and praised God for their safe passage, according to the Craftsmen’s memoir, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. But they did not stay in the city for long. Warned by vulnerable local abolitionists in Philadelphia, the couple traveled north to Boston in January.

“That’s one thing that’s been fascinating in my research because you associate Philadelphia with (Independence) Hall and the birthplace of American freedom,” Wu said. “But it was not considered as safe for freedom seekers as craft.”

Philadelphia had the largest black population in the North in 1848, but the city’s proximity to the South meant it was “a prime location for people to abduct and search for freedmen,” Woo said. These contrasts are reflected in pockets of the city like Carolina Row, a section of Spruce Street home to wealthy sons who have come to study from the south or put down roots.

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The local Committee of Vigilance and the Women’s Companion Association, underground networks of activists, once helped runaway slaves, but in 1848 “came under pressure,” Wu explained. More recently, mobs have targeted anti-slavery societies, burning meeting places such as Pennsylvania Hall and attacking abolitionists with bricks and stones. A recent influx of immigrants had fueled nativism in Philadelphia, and “Black people were subjected to repeated, violent attacks,” Wu wrote. When Robert Purvis, a free black man and president of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, moved his family to a Quaker community in present-day Northeast Philly in 1842, the Vigilance Committee virtually disappeared.

The Craftsmen spent the next year and a half in New England, traveling to various cities as popular speakers at abolitionist meetings, sharing their stories in support of the cause. But the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 forced them to flee again, as it allowed for unprecedented slave catchers. Although Boston’s abolitionist community was much stronger than Philadelphia’s, and persecuted trappers who came for the craft so relentlessly that they left the city, William and Ellen were ready to start a family, and they vowed never to let their travels go. children feel what they have.

So they made their home in London for nearly 20 years, raising five children (the sixth died in infancy), before returning to post-Civil War America. Those children and their descendants continued their parents’ activities independently. One of them, Peggy Trotter Dammond Presley, a great-granddaughter of artisans, was a 1960s freedom rider who “reversed” the journey of her ancestors by traveling from her hometown of Harlem to protest sites in the South, or as she called them. “belly of the beast.”

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“I worked less than a hundred miles from where they fled,” Presili said. “And it was a great experience. Every day I felt the weight, the blood, the pride, the fear, and all of my ancestors as I walked those streets, knocking on doors, being arrested and imprisoned for protesting. events and voter registration”.

Prior William and Ellen he knew from childhood, but the additional scholarship in his life filled in some of the gaps and corrected some of the strategic lies told by the Craftsmen in their day. For example, in the lecture sequence, Ellen claimed that her master was dead in order to hide their identities and protect them from slavers. William also claimed at various points to cover up the cowardly Ellen, and he is listed as the sole author of Running a Thousand Miles to Freedom, even though the couple wrote it together. Both versions were designed to fit Victorian concepts of femininity — a time when women’s voices were also suppressed, Preacely noted.

“When people read [this] “In the book, they will learn not only what my great-grandparents did, but more about what was going on in their lives,” she continued. the role of history was used. Because when I was in school in the 40s, we didn’t have many (Black) people in our books, or teachers who knew how many Blacks had rebelled.

“People didn’t want to know the truth.”


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