A Towering Woman of Achievement

May 29, 2024


I saw a poll the other day saying that fewer Black Americans plan to vote in this year’s upcoming presidential election than voted in 2020.  (Six months before the election, it seems to be true of White voters, too.)

This lack of enthusiasm for a rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump is palpable — not a good sign for any democracy.     

But it made me think about Ellen Craft, a towering woman of achievement who most certainly would have voted, whatever the cost, if women had been allowed to cast their ballots in the 19th century, which was when she lived.  Born enslaved in Georgia in 1826, Ellen Craft died in South Carolina 43 years after helping to engineer a daring escape from bondage and then living in freedom with her husband in the North and in England for more than two decades before returning to the American South after slavery was outlawed.

Her astonishing tale is told in “Master Slave Husband Wife:  An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom”, the splendid book by Ilyon Woo that was awarded the 2024 Pulitzer Prize for biography.

Ellen’s mother was an African-American slave named Maria; her father was her mother’s White owner. Ellen, who was a deft seamstress, had a light complexion and was often mistaken for a member of her master’s family on their Georgia plantation. 

At the age of 20, Ellen married William Craft, a virtuoso cabinet maker who was enslaved on the same plantation.  Two years into their marriage, in 1848, the couple put into motion a bold and dangerous plan to gain their freedom:  Ellen would disguise herself as a sickly white gentleman pretending to be traveling to Philadelphia for medical treatment.  William would accompany her as her loyal slave.

In preparation for their journey, Ellen had been secretly constructing good-quality clothing that a White gentleman would wear.  She fashioned herself a top hat, too.  Placing her arm in a sling “to explain her inability to write” (she couldn’t read, either), she then “wrapped her head in a bandage to disguise her lack of beard.”  In a heart-stopping journey via boat, train, stage coach, and foot, the couple eventually reached Maryland, a Free State.

Later relocating to Boston, the Crafts became a popular duo on the antislavery lecture circuit, during which time they also eluded two agents sent by Ellen’s former master to capture them.

After the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was passed, however, which permitted the forcible recapture of ex-slaves from Free States, the Crafts were no longer safe in the United States.  Fleeing to England, they published the story of their thrilling escape in 1860, called “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom.”  

Their five children were born in England, where the couple went to an agricultural school and later became teachers.

A few years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Crafts returned to the United States, where they established a plantation and school for children in Charleston; it was swiftly burned down by the Ku Klux Klan.  A second plantation and school that the couple opened in Georgia eventually went bankrupt.

Ellen died in Charleston in 1891. You can bet that if she were alive today, this indomitable woman would be telling her story and running for, or serving in, political office. And I have no doubt that she’d be showing up to vote at her polling station in November.

Jan Collins 2021-circle-crop

Jan Collins is a Columbia, South Carolina-based journalist, editor, and author. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and former Congressional Fellow in Washington, D. C., she is the coauthor of Next Steps: A Practical Guide to Planning for the Best Half of Your Life (Quill Driver Books, 2009).

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