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William And Ellen Craft Escaping Slavery History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

William and Ellen Craft were two slaves in the early eighteen hundreds, who would risk everything on a marvel and cunning plan to escape from slavery. Williams describes his slave environments: “It is true, our condition as slaves was not by any means the worst; but the mere … thought that we could not call the bones and sinews God gave us our own: …haunted us for years.” Both fighting fear and embracing hope, the Crafts would would embark on a thousand mile journey in 4 days through many obstacles and make it to freedom. While the story does end somewhat unhappily, theirs is a tale of courage, conviction and love that transcends any ordinary escape story and encourages to this day.

In 1826, Ellen Smith was born in Clinton, Georgia. Her parents were Colonel James Smith, who was white and Maria, the biracial slave of Smith. Being of mixed ethnicity, Ellen was very light skinned and often taken for Caucasian. The masters’ wife would often become infuriated that Ellen was incorrectly viewed as part of their family. Mrs. Smith would separate Ellen from her mother at the age of eleven by giving her to Dr. Robert Collins as a wedding present. Dr. Collins married Colonel Smith’s daughter, Eliza, Ellen’s white half-sister. Ellen frequently credited her new owner, Eliza, as more kind than the majority of the other masters. It was here at her new master’s home in Macon, Georgia that Ellen met William.

The son of two slaves, William Craft was born in Macon, Georgia in 1924. Similar to Ellen and more than tens of thousands of other slaves, during these days he had been separated from his family. This was due to his owner’s gambling debt. Williams’s entire whole family was broken up. He belonged to a banker and had been apprenticed as a carpenter in order to make money for him through his labor. Slaves who had trade skills were of considerable more value than those without any.

William and Ellen met in Macon, Georgia forged a bond, which blossomed into love. The two desired marriage, but they were quite reluctant to the attachment because their rights were non-existent. Although, they were allowed to marry, Ellen and William could not live together since their owners differed. She would marry William in 1946 and avoid having children in a system that tore families apart constantly. Williams states that they would “endeavor to make ourselves as comfortable as possible under that system; but at the same time ever to keep our dim eyes steadily fixed upon the glimmering hope of liberty, and earnestly pray God mercifully to assist us to escape from our unjust thraldom”)”

The “plan” they concocted was equally bold and ingenious. Because “slaveholders have the privilege of taking their slaves to any part of the country they think proper, it occurred to me that, as my wife was nearly white, I might get her to disguise herself as an invalid gentleman, and assume to be my master, while I could attend as his slave, and that in this manner we might effect our escape.” On 21 December1848, disguised as master and slave, they set off from Georgia on their dangerous journey to Philadelphia. Ellen successfully impersonated a white man named William Johnson. With the use of her fair skin and Caucasian features, William cut her hair. She wore a black suit and cape, high boots, and green-tinted sunglasses to hide her eyes.

In order to cope with the fact she was illiterate, Ellen put her arm in a sling. When people checked into hotels they had to sign names, this gave her a reason to ask the receptionist to write on her behalf without suspicion. Ellen wrapped her jaw in a poultice (bandage) siting dental complications this allowed her to cover her features and lack of beard. Also, because of the pain in her mouth, she rarely spoke. To upkeep the account of an arm injury, William would perform many tasks for her; not limited to cutting Ellen’s food. His needed assistances and help with his master’s handicap allowed William to stay nearby Ellen on the journey.

Astonishingly enough this was effective. During, the voyage the Crafts took trains, steamers and coaches. They travelled through South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland becoming increasingly uneasy as they neared Philadelphia. They encountered a few close calls. One being when they had arrived in Baltimore, they were nearly stopped when they were informed a slave could not purchase a ticket without a written statement from the master. Clearly this was a problem, given they were both illiterate. William was forced to beg and plead for his “master,” explaining that he could not write due to the dreadful pain and required travel to Philadelphia to see a dentist. Luckily this worked and the ticket operator allowed him to purchase two tickets on his “masters” behalf.

Four days from beginning their escape, on Christmas Day, they reached their target point and freedom. They arrived in Philadelphia. The Crafts stayed with a white Quaker family and as Williams wrote: ‘This was the first act of great and disinterested kindness we had ever received from a white person.’ They resided in Philadelphia for three weeks, but made their way to Boston, a focal point of the abolitionist effort. It was here that they were helped through the network of free blacks, runaway slaves and sensitive whites.

William used the years of apprenticeship skills and obtained work doing cabinetry. Ellen was a seamstress. They became heavily involved in the abolitionist effort. They were encouraged by others to tell their story; the Crafts gave speeches at anti-slavery meetings. Many newspaper articles were written about such meetings; these articles that made it to as far away as Macon, Georgia.

During this time congress was struggling to hold the union together, California and Texas were territories recently attained and were lobbying to join the union as free states. This highly upset the slave states who wished to keep a sense of balance between free and slave states. If California and Texas joined as free states the slave states would lose their balance of representatives. In order to pacify the slave states Henry Clay, offered the Compromise of 1850; on January 29th, 1950 the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted. This law allowed slave owners to recover escaped slaves in the free states and obligated authorities in the free states to help with the enforcement of the law. While this compromise, temporarily, kept the Union intact it concluded the freedom to blacks who had successfully escaped and were living in the north.

In William’s words the Fugitive Slave Act was “an enactment too infamous to have been thought of or tolerated by any people in the world, except the unprincipled and tyrannical Yankees.” The couple was no longer safe although living in a “free” state. Ellen’s former master, now ‘current’ master in the eyes of the “law” sent out two slave catchers to Boston in order to recover his missing “property.” Officials in Boston evaded assisting the slave catchers by creating delays, deferments, jurisdictional disputes. The slave owners would petition the President of the United States, Miilard Filmore, for assistance in obtaining the missing slaves with the catchers continually being denied access to the Crafts. Filmore agreed and said they should be returned to the south even offering military authorization to help with their capture. The Crafts were in need of another escape.

December 1950, just two years after bravely escaping slavery William and Ellen decided to go to England, where slavery had been abolished since 1838. They felt that Canada would not be safe. With the help of fellow abolitionists William and Ellen managed to escape Boston by boat to Liverpool. Eventually, they moved to London where they attended school for a brief period to learn to read and write. The Crafts would also start a family of five children: Charles Estlin Phillips, William, Brougham, Alfred, and Ellen. They joined the campaign for the abolition of slavery in England and became major activists on the cruelty of slavery. In 1860 William wrote a book about their escape entitled Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. In the book, he gave detailed accounts of their background and made comments and notes on slavery and attitudes of people encountered along the way. The way William portrayed slavery was enlightening and descriptive.

In 1868, following the Civil War and after the abolishment of slavery in the United States, Ellen and William and their five children returned. The couple felt safe enough to return to the states. The Crafts bought a plantation and opened a trade school for African Americans in South Carolina. There they would to help fellow blacks and former slaves. Unluckily, the Ku Klux Klan burned down their first farm.

In 1870, the couple returned to Georgia and settled outside of Savannah in Bryan County. Here they raised money from northern publishers and antislavery friends to purchase 1,800 acres of land. The Crafts would then launch the Woodville Co-operative Farm School, in 1873. This school was used for the education and employment of newly freed slaves. A cloud of disgrace would come over the farm school in 1876 William’s backers accused him misusing funds. In 1878, William would lose many friends after an unsuccessful libel suit was filed to clear his name in Boston’s courts. Soon after, the school at Woodville closed primarily because it lacked funding due to the opposition and slander by angry whites.

In 1890 the Crafts moved to Charleston to live with their daughter’s family. Ellen died in 1891; William died in 1900. She would be buried on the property of the Woodville Co-operative Farm School. In 1996 Ellen was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievements how their fellow slaves in America that they could be self-sufficient-in Ellen’s words, “I had much rather starve in England, a free woman, than to be a slave for the best man who ever breathed upon the American continent.”

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