The couple left their enslavers in Georgia on the pretext of carrying out errands and left for Boston.
In one of the most daring escapes recorded, Ellen and William Craft, an enslaved married couple, gave their enslavers the slip and traveled to Boston after dressing Ellen as a white man. They started out in Georgia and made it out safe with Ellen pretending to be a white affluent man and William being her slave. The couple risked their lives to pull off the ultimate con before living a life of dignity and becoming outspoken critics of slavery, reported National Parks Service. As Black History month comes to a close, we can't help but tip our hats to Ellen and William Craft. Ellen was half-white and very fair, so the couple decided to use that as they planned to escape their enslavers in Macon, Georgia and make a five-day trip to the North.
William was a talented cabinet maker and started buying the things needed for Ellen's transformation into a white man, including a top hat, green spectacles and a long jacket. One of the major obstacles to their plan was that neither of them knew to read or write and Ellen would be required to sign agreements for payments, hotel guestbooks and passenger logs. They decided that the only way to escape from that situation was to pretend she was injured in her right hand. They bandaged and had her right hand in a sling. They would also use it as motivation, telling people that they were visiting a specialist in Philadelphia.
Both of them had unique skills which enabled them to obtain written permission to leave their enslavers’ property for carrying out errands. It would take them five days to reach the North and it meant they had to navigate various situations to convince white people that Ellen was a white man. Their lives depended on it and the whole story was captured in their memoir titled, 'Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom.' Their plan faced many hiccups and was riddled with tense moments. They escaped on December 21, 1848, taking the train to Savannah, Georgia. Ellen and William were almost outed on the first day after Ellen was seated right next to a dear friend of her previous enslaver. Ellen pretended to be deaf to avoid any conversation that could potentially out them and it worked.
They were at the receiving end of some unsavory language from a steamboat worker and an army captain but managed to make it to Charleston, South Carolina. They stayed at one of the best hotels there and the staff all vied to care for the 'invalid' young man. They then took a steamboat to Wilmington, North Carolina, a train to Richmond, Virginia and another steamboat to Maryland. They were one last train journey away from reaching their destination when Ellen was told that enslaved people were not allowed on trains heading North as they feared many were escaping in such a manner. They asked Ellen to prove that William belonged to her. They demanded proper documentation and the duo almost ended up getting caught but for a sympathetic conductor who fell for Ellen's bandaged arm.
On Christmas Day, they landed in Philadelphia. Ellen cried out: “Thank God, William, we’re safe!” They settled among other abolitionist communities in Boston. They found work and soon learned to read and write. Abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and William Wells Brown encouraged them to speak up about their escape to the public and they did. They also heavily slammed the practice of slavery in these speeches.
Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which called on the state to return slaves to their owners, even if they were currently free. The new act enabled bounty hunters to go after slaves for rewards. Ellen and William Craft decided they had to escape once again, especially after learning two bounty hunters were on their case. They left for England where they spent the rest of their lives and raised five children in Hammersmith. They continued to make a case for freeing enslaved people back home and also published the memoir that aided their campaign to free their community.
As the heroics of their escape made news and was discussed widely, the pro-slavery press claimed the couple regretted moving to England. Ellen Craft was scathing in her response. “So I write these few lines merely to say that the statement is entirely unfounded, for I have never had the slightest inclination whatever of returning to bondage; and God forbid that I should ever be so false to liberty as to prefer slavery in its stead. In fact, since my escape from slavery, I have gotten much better in every respect than I could have possibly anticipated. Though had it been to the contrary, my feelings in regard to this would have been just the same, for 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,” she wrote. The Crafts eventually returned to Georgia after the American Civil War in 1868 and started the Woodville Co-operative Farm School for freemen’s children.