William and Ellen Craft (1824-1900; 1826-1891)
William and Ellen Craft were slaves from Macon who gained celebrity after a daring, novel, and very public escape in December 1848. The daughter of an African American woman and her white master,
The Crafts quickly moved to Boston, which had an established free black
In 1850, however, Congress disturbed their peace by ratifying the Fugitive Slave Act, which made it a crime for residents of free states to harbor or aid fugitive slaves like the Crafts. The act also handsomely rewarded officers of the law for assisting slave owners by apprehending their fugitive "property" and sending them back to slavery.
The Crafts attended the Ockham School in Surrey for three years before settling in West London to raise a bustling family of five children: Charles Estlin Phillips, William, Brougham, Alfred, and Ellen. They continued as public figures in the abolitionist movement by lecturing in England and Scotland and publishing their narrative, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860). While the title page attributes sole authorship of their memoir to William, scholarship in the twenty-first century has revisited Ellen's involvement in writing and shaping their story. Several scholars consider Ellen's appearances with William at antislavery lectures as evidence of the memoir's collaborative roots, in addition to testimonies of Ellen's assertiveness that were provided by abolitionist friends during the postbellum years.
In June 1851 they staged a demonstration against American slavery at the London Great Exhibition, one of the most memorable and influential spectacles of the nineteenth century. They strolled through the American section arm-in-arm with white abolitionist friends to demonstrate the irony of encountering more racial tolerance in England—a country that had banned slavery from its Caribbean colonies by 1838—than in the so-called democratic United States. One year later, Ellen published an open letter in antislavery newspapers to refute savage rumors that she was tired of the responsibilities of freedom and wanted to be enslaved again.
During their nineteen years in England, the Crafts pursued their intellectual development, raised their family, and established a livelihood. They followed such various pursuits as teaching, running a boarding house, and (for William) creating commercial and mercantile agreements in West Africa.
After reunions in Boston, the couple returned to Georgia in 1870. They settled outside of Savannah in Bryan County, where they raised money from northern publishers and antislavery friends to purchase 1,800 acres of land. They then launched the Woodville Co-operative Farm School in 1873 for the education and employment of newly freed slaves. Scandal erupted in 1876 when some of William's backers accused him of personally using funds intended for charitable purposes. He sued for libel to clear his name in Boston's courts but in 1878 lost the case along with many longtime allies.
Soon after, the school at Woodville closed from lack of funding. William struggled to maintain the farm in the face of increased debt, plummeting cotton prices, and increasing anti-black violence and legal oppression. In 1890 the Crafts moved to Charleston to live with their daughter's family. Ellen died in 1891; William died in 1900.
In 1996 Ellen was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement.
R. J. M. Blackett, Beating Against the Barriers: Biographical Essays in Nineteenth-Century Afro-American History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986).
Sarah Brusky, "The Travels of William and Ellen Craft: Race and Travel Literature in the Nineteenth Century," Prospects 25 (2000): 177-91.
William and Ellen Craft, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom: The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999).
Barbara McCaskill, "Ellen Craft: The Fugitive Who Fled as a Planter," in Georgia Women: Their Lives and Times, vol. 1., ed. Ann Short Chirhart and Betty Wood (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009).
Barbara McCaskill, "'Yours Very Truly': Ellen Craft—The Fugitive as Text and Artifact," African American Review 28 (winter 1994).
Ellen Samuels, "'A Complication of Complaints': Untangling Disability, Race, and Gender in William and Ellen Craft's Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom," MELUS 31 (fall 2006): 15-47.
Dorothy Sterling, Black Foremothers: Three Lives (Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1998).
Daneen Wardrop, "Ellen Craft and the Case of Salomé Muller in Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom," Women's Studies 33 (2004): 961-84.
Barbara McCaskill, University of Georgia
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.