How This Black Woman Passed And Escaped From Slavery With Her Husband
Being Black in America often means not knowing enough about your history, your contributions, your triumphs and subsequently yourself. And we know that the pattern of pushing our stories to the wayside, altering them or disregarding them entirely is not some type of coincidence. It’s a very calculated and psychologically damaging tactic. And while it would be relatively easy for me to slip into a understandable funk about the centuries long campaign to erase Black people, I’ll chose a more productive course of action in my decision to tell, or in this case, share the stories about ourselves.
Yesterday, I stumbled across a story–a very old story, particularly in the context of newsworthiness, that Jezebel published. Ellen Craft, the Slave Who Posed as a Master and Made Herself Free. Naturally, I was hooked from the title. Jezebel has this series, written by New York-based writer and historian, Angela Serratore, that details the lives of extraordinary women from the past. And Ellen certainly seemed to fit the bill.
Here’s the story of how she and and her husband led themselves to freedom.
A few days before Christmas, 1848, a man named William Craft gave his wife Ellen a haircut—in fact, he cut it to the nape of her neck, far shorter than any other woman in Macon, Georgia, where the Crafts lived. They picked out her clothes—a cravat, a top hat, a fine coat—and went over the plan for what felt like the hundredth time.
Ellen was scared. “I think it is almost too much for us to undertake; however, I feel that God is on our side,” she would later write, “and with his assistance, notwithstanding all the difficulties, we shall be able to succeed.”
Ellen and William were Black, and they were enslaved. The morning after the haircut they would leave Macon forever, disguised—William as a slave, Ellen as his white master.
If it worked, they would be free.
Ellen Craft was born in 1826 in Clinton, Georgia. Ellen’s status in the world was the perfect example of the ways in which the “one drop rule” operated in this country. She was the biological daughter of Maria, a mulatto slave born to a plantation owner, and James Smith a White slave master. By all accounts, Ellen was far more White than Black. (Three-fourths White.) But since her mother was a slave–and partially Black, Ellen was too.
Ellen’s lighter complexion made her life as a slave much different than that of other slaves. She worked as a house slave and, with her lighter complexion and genetic makeup, she was often “confused” for a member of her master’s family. James Smith’s wife was so troubled by Ellen’s presence in her home, a constant reminder of his affair, that at 11-years-old, she gave Ellen to her daughter Eliza and her husband in Macon, Georgia, as a wedding gift. (It’s almost too strange to comprehend; but if Eliza was James’ daughter, Mrs. Smith would have essentially been sending her daughter “a sister slave” as a gift.)
Ellen continued to work as a house slave for Eliza. When she turned 20, she met William Craft. Craft, was partially owned by Ellen’s master, Dr. Robert Collins and partly by another businessman in Macon who had been given partial ownership to cover a gambling debt. William also was loaned out to a town carpenter, who taught him and used his labor start a successful business.
In 1846, William and Ellen married. Their masters allowed the union but didn’t allow them to live together. At the time, both William and Ellen knew that any children they produced would be relegated to a life of slavery. WIth both Ellen and William watched their own families be separated at a whim, Ellen was afraid to give birth to children who might suffer the same fate. After two years of marriage, the two decided that rather than succumb to the rules of the injustice institution, they would escape it.