A doubly daring escape from slavery

WAY BACK WHEN

Runaway couple had a scary stop in Baltimore

February 28, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The harrowing escape to freedom and subsequent odyssey of William and Ellen Craft, two Georgia slaves, was brought to my attention recently by Doris E. Carberry, a retired Sun librarian, and Jeanene V. Ferguson, a California marketing and financial expert, who are cousins and descendants of the Crafts.

Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, which eloquently chronicles the couple's lives as slaves and their subsequent escape, was written by William Craft. It was first published in England in 1860 by William Tweedie, who also printed an abolitionist newspaper.

The book faded out of print and remained so for more than a century. A renewed interest in black history led to a new publication in 1969 by the Louisiana State University Press.

"I knew the story way before I knew about the book. My father had written a family history in the 1970s, and he talked about the Crafts but was never able to find out the exact connection. I discovered it after I read the book about five years ago, which has become a big thing in our family," said Ferguson, who taught marketing at Morgan State University in the mid-1970s.

"It's an amazing story. The Crafts were determined not to raise their children in a world of slavery. And that was brave," she added.

Both William and Ellen Craft were born into slavery in Georgia. She was the daughter of a slave and a plantation owner.

While slave laws prohibited marriage between people of European descent and slaves, they did not discourage a white man from being involved with as "many colored women as he pleases without materially damaging his reputation in Southern society," Craft wrote.

"My old master had the reputation of being a very humane and Christian man, but he thought nothing of selling my poor old father, and dear aged mother, at separate times, to different persons, to be dragged off, never to hold each other again, till summoned to appear before the great tribunal of heaven."

Craft, who had been hired out as an apprentice cabinetmaker, and his wife lived on a plantation near Macon, Ga. They were married in the 1840s.

"My wife was torn from her mother's embrace in childhood, and taken to a distant part of the country," wrote Craft. "She had seen so many other children separated from their parents in this cruel manner, that the mere thought of her ever becoming the mother of a child, to linger out a miserable existence under the wretched system of American slavery, appeared to fill her very soul with horror; and as she had taken what I felt to be an important view of her condition, I did not, at first press the marriage, but agreed to assist her in trying to devise some plan by which we might escape from our unhappy condition."

The couple knew they could not travel without their master's consent. If they did, they would be considered fugitives and tracked down by ruthless slave-hunters with their packs of barking bloodhounds and returned to slavery.

The plan they formed was to have Ellen, who was light-skinned, cut her hair and dress as a man. They were given passes from their master that allowed them to travel at Christmas.

Ellen, posing as a man, would travel in the company of her "servant," William, who was dark-skinned.

"When the time had arrived for us to start, we blew out the lights, knelt down, and prayed to our Heavenly Father to mercifully assist us, as he did his people of old, to escape from cruel bondage," Craft wrote.

As Craft unlatched their cabin door, he turned to his wife and said, "Come my dear, let us make a desperate leap for liberty!"

At the time, the couple could not read or write. As a "white man," Ellen possibly might be called upon to sign some papers during their travel. To avoid this, the couple placed her arm in a sling.

Beginning on Dec. 21, 1848, they traveled north by railroad and steamer. On Christmas Eve, they arrived in Baltimore, the last slave port they would encounter on their escape.

They were detained and questioned for a few anxious moments by an officer at the railroad station about the validity of the "master" taking William to Philadelphia. A railroad conductor who had seen the couple on the train from Washington intervened and they were released moments before the northbound train departed.

"We felt ... that the slightest mistake would clip asunder the last brittle thread of hope by which we were suspended, and let us down for ever into the dark and horrible pit of misery and degradation from which we were straining every nerve to escape," Craft wrote.

They eventually made their way to England in 1851. It was there that their first child was born and William learned to read and write.

"After the Civil War, there was no point in staying any longer in England and they returned to Georgia," said Ferguson.

In 1869, the Crafts established Woodville, a cooperative farming community in Georgia, which would become the final resting place of Ellen. (She died in 1891.) William later moved to Charleston, S.C., to live with his daughter, Ellen, who had married William Crum, a well-known physician.

William Craft died in 1900 and was buried in the Friendly Union Society cemetery in North Charleston.

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