Master Slave Husband Wife

by Ilyon Woo

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Last Updated March 14, 2023.

Master Slave Husband Wife tells the story of William and Ellen Craft, a married couple who successfully escaped their enslavement in Macon, Georgia, in 1848. Ellen, the daughter of her enslaver and a half-white enslaved woman, was fair-skinned enough to pass for a white person. As such, she was able to disguise herself—pretending to be a young, disabled white gentleman named Mr. Johnson—and travel by trains and steamers toward freedom. Along the way, William played the role of her slave. 

William worked as a cabinetmaker, a position that often required him to work off the plantation and allowed him to save a small portion of his earnings. Ellen was gifted to Eliza Smith Collins, her half-sister, as a wedding present. As such, both had passes written by their enslavers which granted them a measure of freedom and mobility, allowing them to travel with greater agency and gain a brief head start. After long days of careful preparation, the couple separately reached a nearby train station, boarded a northbound train, and narrowly escaped discovery by William’s enslaver. 

After boarding the train at Macon, the couple reached Savannah, Georgia, then boarded a steamer to Charleston, South Carolina. Ellen, who had previously lived in Charleston with the Collins, correctly predicted that purchasing tickets for the next leg of their journey would be difficult. Illiterate and incapable of signing her name, Ellen wore her arm in a sling to excuse her inability to sign their tickets. While this presented some issues, other gentlemen they met during their journey to Charleston vouched for her and William, fooled by her disguise and manner. 

Originally, the couple had planned to take a steamer to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. However, their plans were disrupted, forcing them to take the more dangerous and convoluted Overland train, which heightened their risk of being caught. Early in their travels, William was accused of being a fugitive but the matter was quickly cleared up when Ellen, speaking as Mr. Johnson, proved that William was not the fugitive in question and rightfully belonged to her.

Along the way, they stopped in Wilmington, North Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; Washington D.C.; and Baltimore, Maryland. As Woo narrates the couple’s journey through each area, she interweaves details about attempted slave escapes and the history of slave trading throughout the nation. One particularly suspenseful incident occurred when the Crafts approached Philadelphia, their first truly Northern location. Due to the river’s current, the passengers had to transfer from the train to a ferry and then back to a train. Ellen did not see William during the transfer and worried that they would be separated; however, it turned out that he had fallen asleep in the baggage car, which had been transferred to the new train. They reunited and arrived in Philadelphia on Christmas Eve of 1848.

At the time, Philadelphia was home to freeborn and self-emancipated Black Americans. There was an active abolitionist community, but it did not make up “the majority” in the city. Robert Purvis and his wife, Harriet Forten Purvis assisted the Crafts, interviewing the brave couple for leaflets that would soon be distributed in abolitionist papers across the country. The Crafts stayed in Philadelphia for some time, staying with the Ivins family, whose Quaker values led them to abolitionism. 

The Ivins taught them to read and write, and they also introduced the Crafts to William Wells Brown, a popular and charismatic speaker on the North’s anti-slavery lecture circuit. He invited the couple to join him, offering to introduce them to crowds in New England before they began to speak for themselves. They made their debut in Boston,...

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where their story made them an overnight sensation. Crowds were shocked by the fairness of Ellen’s skin, and the group began advertising their speeches with the phrase “white slave” to describe Ellen. The fact of Ellen’s appearance and part-white ancestry challenged crowds in new ways.

As the Crafts’ fame grew in the North, their Southern enslavers caught wind of their location and began to plan their course of action to retrieve the couple, whom they saw as their legal property. At the time, the handling of fugitive slaves in the North was a controversial subject: Southern slave owners accused the North of not fulfilling their constitutional duties of returning the enslavers’ rightful property to them and instead assisting the fugitives by providing housing and supplies. 

In 1850—just two short years after the Crafts’ clever escape—a trio of statesmen, including Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, and Henry Clay, addressed Congress to declare the duties of the North to the Union as a whole. If Northerners would not obey the stricter Fugitive Slave Act (FSA), they would be responsible for leading the nation to Civil War. In Boston, antislavery advocates rallied against these developments, threatening secession. The Crafts and Brown, along with other big names in abolition like Frederick Douglass, spoke out against slavery and fugitive slave laws. Brown invited the Crafts to travel abroad with him and continue to give lectures against slavery. The couple turned down his offer, insistent that they would not allow racism and injustice to drive them from their home country. However, once President Fillmore sent troops to Boston to help enforce the FSA, the Crafts were left without a choice, knowing that they must move to a free nation.

Initially, the Crafts fled to Canada, but they soon learned Black American refugees were not necessarily welcome. Undeterred by this development, they chose to go to England. However, illness took hold of the couple, forcing them to remain bedridden for two weeks and causing them to miss their transatlantic steamer. Afterward, they reunited with Brown, who had spent a year and a half traveling throughout the United Kingdom and Europe. William joined Brown as he continued to lecture throughout the region, but Ellen, who remained ill, continued to slowly recover. William had grown immensely as a speaker and exerted great influence over his audience. They were introduced to Dr. James W.C. Pennington, a Black preacher who had emancipated himself but claimed that if he were recaptured, he would consider it God’s will and return to slavery without resistance. Ellen found this stance ridiculous and openly laughed at him in what would become known as the “Pennington incident.”

The Crafts visited British writer Harriet Martineau and shared their story with her. She was deeply moved and made arrangements for the couple’s education, asking them to teach their trades to young people in exchange for a formal education in literacy and more. However, the Crafts initially turned down the offer. Alongside Brown, the Crafts attended the first-ever World’s Fair in London, where they were stunned to see no real reference to slavery, even in exhibits about American industries that relied on slave labor. To rebel, they walked freely in mixed-race groups between each continent’s exhibits to mimic their ability to move freely around the world as self-proclaimed “global citizens.” When the World’s Fair ended, the Crafts accepted Martinueau’s offer to teach and learn. Finally having settled into a stable life, the Crafts had their first freeborn child, Charles,

In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation freed American slaves, including Ellen’s mother Maria; however, Maria lived in the South, and the two could not be reunited until the war ended. William traveled to Africa, where he persuaded local leaders to end the slave trade and opened schools. He left the family for long stretches of time, leaving Ellen to raise their children alone. The Crafts eventually returned to the United States where they opened collectives focusing on education and farming, one of which was burned by “night riders.” The couple’s children and descendants would become “teachers and activists, scholars, lawyers, and citizens of the world,” including Peggy Trotter Dammond Preacely, who would be arrested for her participation at a Civil Rights sit-in. 

Little is known about Ellen’s death, only that she is buried in Woodville, Georgia, and that she rests separately from her husband, who stayed with relatives in Charleston, South Carolina, until his death in January 1900. Although their story lacks closure, Woo concludes that the “complexity” of the Crafts’ lives “remains the source of their enduring power” and encourages readers to share their story as an exemplar of the admirable lengths to which one couple would go to ensure not only their freedom but also the freedom of future generations.

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