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Thursday, June 16, 2011

How Ellen Craft learned how to read and write

I'd rather starve in England than live as a slave

A remarkable story is that of Ellen Craft, who disguised herself as a man for a 1,000-mile journey to save herself and her husband from slavery.

Jerome Farrell, in today's uplifting biography from the Oxford Dictionary of Biography, tells the story of Ellen Craft, who was born into slavery in Clinton, Georgia, about 1825.  As was so common in those days, she was the daughter of a white landowner, Major James Smith, and Maria, one of his slaves.

In 1837, aged just eleven, she was given away as a wedding gift, to Major Smith's daughter, Eliza, on her marriage to Dr Robert Collins of Macon, Georgia.  There, she met and fell in love with William Craft, a slave apprenticed as a carpenter, and they were married in the informal slave tradition, about 1847.

A devoted couple, they were very afraid of being separated from one another by being sold or given separately, or that any of the children they might have would be snatched out of the family and sold. So, in the fall of 1848, they set out on an escape to the north. 

It was a clever plan.  Ellen, who could pass for white, disguised herself as a slave master travelling to Philadelphia for medical treatment, keeping her right hand in a sling, to give her an excuse of not being able to write her name.  William, who was darker-skinned, pretended to be her servant. 

William had saved some money from his tips as a carpenter, which paid for their fares, first on a train to Savannah and then by boat, train, and coach to Philadelphia.  They had contacts -- or maybe had a lucky encounter.  Four days after leaving Macon they were being hidden by a Quaker family outside Philadelphia. Three weeks later they moved on, no longer in disguise, to Boston, where they were temporarily safe from capture.

For the next eighteen months  Ellen worked as a seamstress, William as a cabinet-maker. Befriended by William Wells Brown, an anti-slavery lecturer and himself an escaped slave, they recounted their stories at many anti-slavery meetings, becoming well known among Boston's 2000-strong black community, many of whom were also fugitive slaves.

Then the idyll fell apart. In September 1850 the Fugitive Slave Bill was passed; within three days of the bill's passage some forty fugitive slaves had fled Boston for Canada.  In October, two agents of their past masters arrived in Boston, intent on seizing the couple.  The community came to their aid, staging legal suits and public protests, and the agents were forced to leave Boston without them.

On 7 November 1850 Ellen and William were 'officially' married by Theodore Parker (their earlier 'slave' marriage not being legally recognized). Later the same month they left Boston for England, travelling via Maine, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, where they caught the steamer for Liverpool. England was the safest, most logical haven; it had harboured fugitive slaves from America for many years.

The Crafts talked at meetings in Scotland and the north and west of England, publicizing the slavery issue.  It was now that they learned to read and write -- English abolitionists encouraged them to study at a trade school for rural youth in Ockham, Surrey. Here they also passed on their valuable skills in carpentering and dressmaking to their fellow pupils.

Both Crafts continued to be involved in the anti-slavery movement. Ellen was adamant that she would not return to live under a regime which endorsed slavery: 'I had much rather starve in England, a free woman, than be a slave for the best man that ever breathed upon the American continent'. After leaving Ockham the Crafts settled in London.  Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, the story of their early life and escape written by William Craft, was published in London in 1860 and was an immediate success.


linda collison said...

What a story!

Joan Druett said...

And what a woman! I hadn't heard of her before, and became an instant fan. Good to tweet with you, Linda :)