|Date(s):||December 1, 1848 to January 31, 1852|
|Location(s):||Maçon, GA | Savannah, GA | Charleston, SC | Richmond, VA | Baltimore, MD | Washington, DC | Philadelphia, PA | Boston, MA | Portland, ME | St John, NB, Canada | Windsor, NS, Canada | Halifax, NS, Canada | Liverpool, UK|
|Tag(s):||Slavery, Escaping slavery, Slave narratives, Slaves, Civil War era|
|Course:||“The United States: A Nation Divided, 1836-1876,” Wheaton College|
|Rating:||5 (3 votes)|
William and Ellen Craft were both born in 1820s Georgia to, by the standards of that time, fairly sensitive masters. Neither was ever beaten by their masters, yet they still could feel the shackles of slavery. They met each other in 1846 by coincidence, and by 1848 were married. Their decision to escape slavery was heavily influenced by, besides their desire for and right to freedom, their desire to raise children out of the confines of slavery. Their escape was quick—eight days from their initial idea—however it was not easy and they ran into many obstacles along the way.
Their idea was based on the fact that Ellen’s quadroon skin made her passably white. So, they decided she was going to dress up as William's male master and chaperone him to Philadelphia, a free state. With nerves rumbling, they gathered costumes and props--Ellen decided to wear glasses and poultices around both her mouth and her arm so that she would neither be recognizable nor be asked to speak or write. Their masters issued them “holiday” papers for a short Christmas vacation. Along their journey, they encountered Ellen's family's friend and William's employer, but luckily were not caught. Many pro-slavery Southern Whites they met warned Ellen, code-named "William Johnson," that her “slave” may escape when they get to the North. Blacks free and enslaved urged William to seek freedom when he got to Philadelphia.
If William and Ellen had good masters, why, then, did they want so badly to be free? Did they not have food, a job, a bed? This sentiment is what Saidiya Hartman says is the worst part of this institution. "If the excess of enjoyment imputed to the enslaved displaced what we would think of as disturbing circumstances, it did so only by obscuring violence and comflating it with pleasure" (Hartman 25). The institution's ideologies as a whole seeped within the community in the form of subconscious racial discrimination and subordination, allowing whites to alleviate their guilt in an instance where a slave seems to be treated more humane than usual. This natural inclination towards racism under the lens of paternalistic, goodly masters is seen throughout the Craft's interactions with the upper-middle to upper class white persons on the trains and steamers. When they were on a train in Richmond, an elite woman mistook William for her escaped "Ned" because she “never in my life saw two black pigs more alike” (Tweedie 62). This incidence truly emphasizes the social atmosphere of the era. A majority of whites held skewed views of blacks and a lot of people were very proud and open about it. This woman was of a paternalistic view of blacks, that they were less intelligent and she knew what was best for them. This idea led her to change the will of her late husband, which had called for the emancipation of his slaves. She sold them because she thought it was “such a cruel thing to turn n****rs loose to shift for themselves, when there are so many good masters to take care of them” (Tweedie 64). A discussion, thus, took place amongst her, Ellen, and gentleman who was sitting by them, though it brought no change of mind to the woman. She reserved her paternalistic view of her slaveholding status.
Mysteriously, the couple came across much luck in their travel. At the port in Baltimore en route to free land in Philadelphia, a "Yankee of the low order" (Tweedie 68) claimed he could not let men with slaves pass without his approval, to prevent the emancipation of the slaves. With sheer luck, the conductor of the train recognized the couple and convinced the Yankee to let them board. While in Philadelphia, they met a man who was a member of the Society of Friends and who graciously hosted them for three weeks. During those three weeks, the freed William and Ellen learned the alphabet and how to spell and write their names.
It came to be, however, that they were not safe in the supposedly free land of the North for, in 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted and their masters sent out warrants for their re-enslavement. As quickly as they arrived in the North, they fled for Canada and then England. William remarks at the end of his narrative about how unfortunate it is that, in order to be free, he and Ellen had to flee a land that prides itself in freedom and equality for the land which that country fled from just a few centuries prior.
"In short, it is well known in England, if not all over the world, that the Americans, as a people, are notoriously mean and cruel towards all coloured persons, whether they are bond or free" (Tweedie 111).