Late Retrospective for Black History Month: From Female Slave, to Southern Gentleman, to Freedom

1. Ellen and William Craft decided they would rather risk their lives than risk the severance of their budding family. These Georgian slaves in the mid-19th century sought a way to escape when they first decided to marry.

My wife was torn from her mother’s embrace in childhood, and taken to a distant part of the country. She had seen so many other children separated from their parents in this cruel manner, that the mere thought of her ever becoming the mother of a child, to linger out a miserable existence under the wretched system of American slavery, appeared to fill her very soul with horror (Craft 27).

2. The couple considered various escape routes, aware that failure would mean death, or worse. Slaveholders seemed to enjoy the pursuit and punishment of escaped slaves. William and Ellen would not risk escaping 1,000 miles without a sure plan. They resigned to marry and toil as slaves until a path to liberty presented herself

3. In December 1848 the idea dawned. Only eight days to freedom

4. Ellen Craft, a fair-skinned slave, must take on the disguise of a white slave master. She would travel from Georgia as the owner of her darker-skinned husband. This clever plan would keep them under the radar, and yet require Ellen to cross firm caste, race, and class lines in disguise.

At first she shrank from the idea. She thought it almost impossible for her to assume that disguise, and travel a distance of 1,000 miles across slave States. … [But] the more she contemplated her helpless condition, the more anvious she was to escape from it (Craft 30).

Image

5. Over the course of four days William purchased a disguise piece by piece. Ellen tailored herself a pair of pants and hid all the items in a locked drawer. They convinced their master and mistress to permit them a few days of Christmas holiday, as they were trusted and well liked. The leave allowed them a head start towards the North.

Just before the time arrived for us to leave I cut my wife’s hair square at the back of the head and got her to dress in the disguise and stand out on the floor. I found that she made a most respectable looking gentleman (Craft 35).

6. When William opened the door to flee, Ellen burst into tears. A perilous journey waited for them, but remaining meant a life of slavery and uncertainty. William sympathized. After a prayer, they set off.

We were like persons near a tottering avalanche; afraid to move, or even breathe freely, for fear the sleeping tyrants should be aroused (Craft 42)

7. Once on the train, William spotted his master peering through the train cars, suspicious that the couple might flee. He failed to recognize Ellen, and the train pulled away before he could find William

8. Ellen endured the first leg of the trip next a friend of her master who had known her since childhood. She pretended to be deaf to avoid contact with him. He did not recognize her and treated her like a gentleman.

9. A trader en route sought to separate the two and buy William. Slaves on free soil could not be trusted. A military officer recommended she stop saying “thank you” and “if you please” to her slave.

10. They were held up in Charleston, where legislators feared abolitionists would smuggle slaves through to the north. The same military gentleman, who provided Ellen with advice on how to treat her “slave,” vouched for them.

11. On the train to Richmond,Virginia, Ellen, pretending to be asleep, overheard a young women swooning over her male persona:

After [Ellen had] been lying there a little while the ladies, I suppose, thought he was asleep; so one of them gave a long sigh, and said, in a quiet fascinating tone, “Papa, he seems to be a very nice young gentleman.” But before papa could speak the other lady quickly said, “Oh! Dear me, I never felt so much for a gentleman in my life!” (Craft 60).

12. Officers stopped the couple in Baltimore, their last transfer before Philadelphia — and freedom. The law required registration and documentation for slaves. Their courage waned. The room filled with tension. The train’s captain passed through, acknowledged them, and then sounded the train’s bell for departure. An officer waved them through indifferently at the last moment.

13. They arrived in Pennsylvania on Christmas day. Eight days after they conceived the plan, four days after their flight began, Ellen collapsed on William. They found refuge in local abolitionists.

14. The couple moved to England where they raised a family, received an education, and spoke out against slavery.

15. Ellen became a symbol for the anti-slavery movement.

[The picture of her as a man] sold so well William hoped the proceeds might assist him in securing his still-enslaved sister (McCaskill 515).

16. Reluctantly, Ellen challenged many aspects of the status quo, so that she could live her life as a mother and educated lady. In an effort to escape one institution she subverted many.

With her appearance as an Africa woman ‘dressed’ as a white woman dressed as a white Southern man, Ellen elides the distinctions between the genders and scrambles the identities of haughty mistress and humble slave (McCaskill 520).

Sources:

Running a thousand miles for freedom, or The Escape of William and Ellen Craft. 1860. William Craft.

“Yours Very Truly”: Ellen Craft–The Fugitive as Text and Artifact. 1994. Barbara McCaskill
Advertisements
Tagged , , , , ,

2 thoughts on “Late Retrospective for Black History Month: From Female Slave, to Southern Gentleman, to Freedom

  1. Nora- this story worked great in this list style structure. Very cool. You should do a second, follow-up post with more of your analysis of her role in the abolitionist movement and this interesting challenge to race and gender issues.

  2. Deborah Blum says:

    Terrific job, Nora. A beautifully structured telling of a story that deftly uses facts to move the story forward.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: