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William Craft
Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery
London: William Tweedie, 1860.


William (1824-1900) and Ellen Craft (1826-1891) were born into slavery in Georgia. Ellen was the daughter of a white slaveholding father and slave mother. Because she took after her father in appearance, she could pass for white. William, on the other hand, had a dark complexion. His master arranged for him to apprentice under a cabinet maker, and he became a skilled carpenter. In 1848, William and Ellen escaped and traveled to Boston, where abolitionists helped establish them in the community and taught them to read and write. They later helped them flee to England in order to avoid recapture under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Census records indicate that while in England, Ellen worked as a seamstress and gave birth to three of the couple's four sons while William worked for a cabinet maker. The abolition of slavery and the end of the Civil War allowed the family to return to the United States in 1868, and they settled in Georgia, where they lived for the rest of their lives. Ellen died in 1891; William died nine years later.

In Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860), William Craft recounts the circumstances under which he and his wife escaped from slavery. His account also relates incidents that portray the evils of slavery, including its negative effects on slaveholders, white children sold into slavery, and other slaves. Craft offers tales of cruelty to show that "he who has the power, and is inhuman enough to trample upon the sacred rights of the weak, cares nothing for race or colour," suggesting that slavery is a product of sadism and not necessarily racial prejudice (p. 3). To prove this point, Craft recounts the tale of Salomé. Muller, a white German girl sold into slavery in New Orleans after her father's death left her and her sister orphaned. Craft also references other accounts of white children stolen or sold into slavery who later obtained their freedom by either running away or being recognized (p. 8).

The Crafts' story begins with Ellen's experience as a daughter of a slaveholder and a slave. Her father's wife was unhappy that Ellen was thought to be one of her own children, so to distance herself from her husband's illegitimate slave child, she gave Ellen as a gift to her daughter (Ellen's half-sister). This kind sister retained legal possession of Ellen until the couple ran away. Craft's own master, on the other hand, sold off his entire family at different periods to finance outstanding debts. Fortunately, because Craft had already been apprenticed to a cabinet maker, his new master, a cashier at the bank who assumed rights to him, allowed him to continue his trade and earn money for his new master.

Throughout the narrative, William quotes sections of law regarding slaves. These excerpts highlight the justifications Southerners made to keep slavery legal and explains why the Crafts were so eager to escape to the North even though neither experienced the extreme physical abuse characteristic of plantation life. Craft introduces a family known as the Slators, whose individual family members were forced into extra-marital relationships and separated from one another before escaping and buying one another's freedom.

Determined not to allow any slave owner the opportunity to sell her children, Ellen decides not to have any children while she remains a slave, and this decision strengthens her desire to escape from slavery. Craft tells of struggling for years to find some way to escape before finally coming up with a promising plan: "Knowing slaveholders have the privilege of taking their slaves to any part of the country they think proper, it occurred to me that, as my wife was nearly white, I might get her to disguise herself as an invalid gentleman, and assume to be my master, while I could attend as his slave, and that in this manner we might effect our escape" (p. 29). At first Ellen struggles with the idea. If they were caught, they would be separated and punished, maybe even killed. Yet her desire for freedom overcomes her fears, and Ellen agrees. The pair begins assembling her disguise and arrange with their owners for a period of leave so that they will not be immediately missed.

In order to carry out their escape, Ellen dresses as a man with one arm in a poultice sling to avoid having to write, which she has never learned to do, and another sling tied about her face to disguise her beardless and feminine features. On the night of their escape, William recounts that Ellen was so afraid that she burst into tears, before finally working up the courage to proceed. From this point in the narrative until they reach the North, Craft calls Ellen his master, and Ellen eventually feels comfortable enough in her role to make a few jokes with the white travelers that she meets on the journey.

The trip north nearly ends before it even begins. The cabinet maker for whom Craft works comes to the train station because he had a premonition that the couple might "make tracks for parts unknown" (p. 43) Furthermore, an old acquaintance of Ellen's family happens to be on the train with her. Fortunately, Ellen's disguise and the train's departure keep them from being recognized. The Crafts manage to play their parts so convincingly that throughout the trip many white passengers try to convince Ellen not to take her slave north, including one who tells her, "I never saw one who ever had his heel upon free soil that was worth a d--n" (p. 47). The closer the pair gets to Philadelphia, the more Ellen is encouraged to remain in the South and the more Craft is covertly advised to run away as soon as they reach the free states. One such advisor gives Craft the address of an abolitionist house where they find friends.

The rest of Craft's account describes their move to Boston, where abolitionist friends help them settle into a home, teach them to read and write, and then help them flee to England after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Although the couple manages to escape from the South on their own, Craft thanks the many friends who helped them in Philadelphia and Boston as well as in England after their arrival. The narrative concludes with their lives in England, but the Crafts eventually return to the U.S. after the Civil War. Their last child is born in Georgia, where they live for the rest of their lives.

Works Consulted: England Census, 1851, Leeds, Yorkshire, England, Class HO107, Piece 2321, Folio 550, Page 27, GSU roll 87549-87552; England Census, 1861, Darlington St Cuthberts, Durham, England, Class RG9, Piece 3681, Folio 6, Page 14, GSU roll 543171; U.S. Department of the Interior, Census Office, 1850, Census Place, Boston Ward 6, Suffolk, Massachusetts, Roll M432_336, Page 402A; U.S. Department of the Interior, Census Office, 1880, Ways Station, Bryan, Georgia, Roll 135, Film 1254135, Page 443C, Enumeration District 8.

Sarah Bradley

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