Ellen Craft was born in Clinton, Georgia (just outside of Macon) in 1826. She was the child of her master, Major James Smith and Maria, a slave on this farm. At the age of eleven, Ellen was given as a wedding present to Major Smith’s oldest daughter (Ellen’s white half sister) who lived in Macon.

Because of the resemblance to her sister, and because mixed-race babies are often more attractive, stronger, and healthy, she was much abused by her jealous and insecure half-sister/master.

As a slave in Macon, she fell in love with, and married, a slave named William Craft. Ellen and William hated the thought of bringing children into the world as slaves and began plotting their escape soon after their marriage.

In 1848 the Crafts devised a plan of escape in which Ellen (who had a very light complexion) would dress up as a white man and William would pretend to be “his” manservant. This daring plan involved months of preparation.

As a craftsman William was able to secretly make a little money on the side. The Crafts used this money to purchase various articles of men’s clothing. Wrapping her head in a handkerchief to conceal her lack of beard and putting her arm in a sling so that she would not have to write her name) Ellen was transformed into an invalid white man.

Both secured 3-days off work from their masters for the Christmas holiday. On December 21, 1848 the Crafts left Macon and travelled by train to Savannah. Ellen was even seated next to her former master, the Major, on the train. One can only imagine the stress and fear that she endured.

In Savannah they boarded a steamer for Charleston to Wilmington, North Carolina. There they had to take refuge in an inn. The innkeeper never even asked them to sign the register because of the apparent invalid nature of Ellen. One more hurdle cleared.

They continued on from Charleston to Wilmington, they took a train to Baltimore where the authorities stopped them who did not want to allow William into Pennsylvania—a free state. They persuaded the authorities to allow them to journey on to Philadelphia where they stayed in relative safety in a Quaker community. After a short rest they continued on to Boston where they finally found a community that embraced them completely.

The Crafts immediately became popular leaders in the abolitionist movement. However, in 1850 the Fugitive Slave Bill was passed which made the federal government responsible for helping to return runaway slaves to their former owners.

As soon as the bill became law, the Crafts former owners asked the government for help in recovering their now famous property. President Millard Fillmore instructed Boston officials to aid in arresting the Crafts.

Willis Hughes and John Knight were sent from Macon to capture the Crafts and bring them back to Georgia. A group of 2,000 friends and supporters of the Crafts formed a protective barrier and prevented their capture.

Realizing that they were still in grave danger, the Crafts fled once again. This time they travelled to England where they found themselves the center of great attention.

In England, William and Ellen leaned to read and write at the Ockham Agricultural School in Surrey. They later became instructors at the school, and four of their five children were born during this time.

In 1862, the Crafts travelled to Africa where they organized a school in Whydah Dahomey. Finally in 1868, after the Civil War, the Craft family returned to the United States. They continued their lives as educators. They ran a school for freed slaves in South Carolina until the Ku Klux Klan burned it.

Undeterred and undaunted, they started a new school in Bryan County, Georgia near Savannah. The Crafts spent the rest of their lives working to educate other freed slaves.

Ellen died in 1891 and William in 1900. Their love of freedom and the desire for equality live on as inspiration to me today. Who amongst us is this brave? Who after all that they had gone through would return to the south? Who would continue to teach after being threatened and having your school burnt down.

Think of it. They could have lived fine lives in England or Africa, but they chose to return to help others, to educate others, and to offer what they could. They chose to be the love in a community that needed it so badly. They chose to be the peace in a land that hadn’t known it.

Share your “Craft” with the world.

Advertisements