Tag Archives: Black History Month

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
Tagged , , , , ,

Black Women in American Culture and History: Mary Church Terrell

In 1906 Mary Church Terrell pointed out that Washington DC, the center of American liberty, failed to live up to its reputation as “The Colored Man’s Paradise.” During her speech to the United Women’s Club in DC, Terrell tore apart the slogan. She proved it a misnomer with anecdotes of segregation and discrimination against African-Americans.

At the time, DC was a difficult place for traveling African Americans to find room and board. It was difficult for African Americans to find a place on a tram, in a church, or at the theater. In her speech, Terrell described the loss of job experienced by many of her very qualified friends and acquaintances:

“A colored woman, as fair as a lily and as beautiful as a Madonna, who was the head saleswoman in a large department store in New York, had been discharged, after she had held this position for years, when the proprietor accidentally discovered that a fatal drop of African blood was percolating somewhere thru her veins.”

One hundred and six years after Terrell told that story, we can appreciate that “a drop of African blood,” is no longer “fatal.” Washington DC, though never a paradise for any man, does host the first African American first family. And this month, we look back at the achievements of and the difficulties surmounted by African Americans. This year in particular African American History Month celebrates the theme, “Black Women in American Culture and History.”

Terrell lived from 1863 to 1954 and was well educated, well traveled, and wealthy. Her parents were slaves before her father became a millionaire.  She spoke professionally on behalf of women and African Americans, and against lynching and disenfranchisement.

She ended her 1906 speech, “What it means to be colored in the Capital of the United States,” with a lament that treatment of African Americans in DC (and elsewhere) leads to “helplessness and hopelessness” and a loss of “incentive and effort” that even sympathetic white people couldn’t appreciate. But the irony she saw in the capital shone through her last remark:

“And surely nowhere in the world do oppression and persecution based solely on the color of the skin appear more hateful and hideous than in the capital of the United States, because the chasm between the principles upon which this Government was founded, in which it still professes to believe, and those which are daily practiced under the protection of the flag, yawns so wide and deep.”

Along similar lines, an exhibit on “The Paradox of Liberty” will explore Thomas Jefferson and his conflicting positions on liberty and slavery. Check it out online or in DC. The exhibit is presented by the forthcoming Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and Monticello.

Source: Man Cannot Speak for Her, Volume II, Compiled by Karlyn Kohrs Campbell

Tagged , , , , ,