The Escape of Ellen Craft
Updated: May 21
The White Man Who Was a Black Woman
This is the true story of a woman who escaped slavery
by posing as a white man traveling with a male slave, her husband.
Imagine for a moment you were born into slavery in 1820s Georgia. Your mother was a young black woman whose white owner had the lawful right to use her sexually. You were born nine months later. What would your life become?
Born from Rape
This was how Ellen Craft came into the world. Like her mother Maria, Ellen spent her childhood in slavery. She was viewed by her owners as less than human, at least not as human as them. However, unlike most of the other enslaved people on Colonel James Smith’s plantation, Ellen’s skin was very light, much like her father’s, the Colonel.
Since Ellen’s grandmother was also raped by her white owner, Ellen had one-quarter African ancestry and three-quarters of European ancestry. Yet, in 19th century America, Ellen was considered black and was called a quadroon.
Too White for Company
As a child, Ellen worked as a servant in the plantation house. She moved among the master’s family members and was a constant reminder to Colonel Smith’s wife that her husband visited the slave quarters for sex outside their marriage. Ellen’s presence humiliated Elizabeth Smith. Once visitors began to mistake Ellen for one of Mrs. Smith’s own children, Ellen’s presence would no longer be tolerated.
A Wedding Present
In 1837 Eliza Smith, Colonel and Mrs. Smith’s 18-year-old daughter married a wealthy businessman named Dr. Robert Collins. The Smiths gave 11-year-old Ellen to the newlyweds as a wedding present. Remember, Eliza and Ellen were half-sisters. Despite this, Eliza now owned Ellen.
Torn from her mother’s side, Ellen was taken to Macon, Georgia where her sister/owner Eliza used her as a “ladies’ maid” for the next 11 years. According to Barbara McCaskill of the University of Georgia’s African Studies Institute, Ellen’s duties would include “helping her mistress” and “other white women in the household in bathing, dressing, grooming, and maintaining their linens and wardrobe; straightening, cleaning, and organizing female bed chambers and their contents; accompanying the ladies of the house to the shops and on other errands; escorting them and other family members to visit neighbors; sewing, mending, and quilting; and supervising Eliza’s five children.”
Ellen Meets Her Husband – William Craft
Born in 1826, William Craft was owned by a gambler who sank deep into debt when William was 16 years old. To raise money, the gambler borrowed money from the bank and put William and his family up as collateral. When the gambler defaulted on the loan, William and his terrified 14-year-old sister were sold to separate bidders at a public auction. Their parents and brother had already been sold and sent off to different plantations throughout the South.
The Day William Was Sold
Years later, William recalled the day he was sold.:
“I wanted to say good-bye. . . She made a farewell bow and buried her face in her lap. This was more than I could bear. My heart broke, but before I could recover, the poor girl was gone. I have never had the chance to see her from that day to this.”
It was Ellen’s owner, Eliza’s husband, who bought William. He was put to work as a carpenter to earn money for his new owner.
Vow Not to Have Children
Ellen and William fell in love. Marriage among slaves was not binding to their owners who could sell either of them at any time. William and Ellen delayed asking Dr. Collins for permission to marry as they vowed not to have children in slavery. Just as Ellen was taken from her mother while still a child, children born into slavery could be offered for sale at any age if their white owner chose to do so.
William and Ellen would need to escape to one of the free states before they could start a family. In time, their escape would become legendary.
Odds Against Escape
We can never truly appreciate the sorrow, the humiliation, or the fear that tormented the lives of people living in the US as someone’s personal property. By 1850, government statistics report that more than 3.2 million people of African descent were held in bondage by other Americans. Of the millions of people who spent their one life on earth enslaved by others, fewer than one percent escaped to freedom.
It was illegal for boats, trains, or coaches to accept slaves as passengers without proof of their master’s consent. Black people who attempted to escape slavery were stalked by professional hunters whose methods were brutal. Bloodhounds were used to track “runaways” and it was a serious crime for anyone to aid those who were on the run.
Many runaway slaves who were caught were sold to owners who were known for their cruelty. Others were beaten, whipped, or otherwise tortured, sometimes to death. The spectacle of their gruesome death was thought to deter others from attempting to escape.
By 1848, William and Ellen were desperate enough to settle on an escape plan that now sounds like a Hollywood thriller. Ellen was so light-skinned that William suggested she pose as a white man and travel 1000 miles north, with him acting as her servant. If such a plan seemed plausible to them, we can only imagine how unbearable they found life in slavery.
A woman couldn’t travel without an escort in the mid-19thcentury. and no black man could travel through the South without documents attesting to his owner’s consent. But a black man could travel with his white master without being challenged. Could Ellen pull it off?
Neither of them could read or write, and anyone caught teaching black people to read or write could be fined, or worse. The trip could take days. What would they do if they needed to sign hotel registers? How could they overcome their illiteracy?
Ellen had a brilliant solution. She was already planning to wear the clothing of a male planter.
All she would need to do is put her arm in a sling. No one would ask a man with a broken arm to sign anything. Since Ellen would already be pretending to have an arm injury, she decided to also wrap a bandage around her head and under her chin. She hoped that covering her cheeks would hide the fact that she had smooth skin and no whiskers. She also wore a pair of green-lensed glasses.
Just before Christmas, William and Ellen asked for a few days off to visit friends and loved ones nearby. Their overseers granted them leave, as was customary for some owners at the holiday.
On Christmas Day, 1848, the Crafts arrived in Philadelphia. They were free. The details of their journey sparked an international celebration among abolitionists. They soon moved to Boston, which was the heart of the abolitionist movement.
Ellen and William Craft then married and began to lecture audiences about the horrors of slavery and their spectacular escape to freedom.
Fugitive Slave Law and Flight to England
In 1850, the US Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Law that authorized slave hunters to recapture any former slave and return them to bondage in their state of ownership. The law applied everywhere in the US. Fearing a return to slavery, Ellen and William emigrated to England where they raised five children in relative prominence.
Their miraculous escape from slavery was earthshaking news in the 1800s.
It should be remembered today as a testament to the human spirit and the incalculable value of freedom.