A Woman to Know: Ellen Craft

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. — Ellen Craft

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Ellen and her husband William escaped from slavery in 1848 -- not via the Underground Railroad, but by traveling openly on train and steamboat, all the way from Macon, Ga. to Philadelphia.

Ellen was key to their success. As a light-skinned, mixed-race black woman, she could disguise herself as a white man to take herself and her husband William to freedom. The couple first boarded a train car in Georgia, with William riding in the back as her "personal servant," and Ellen riding in the front as a wealthy white man. She wrapped her face in gauze to affect an ear infection (and to avoid talking to other passengers). For multiple days, she and William traveled out of slave country and into the North -- where they immediately shared their story with the abolitionist movement. This short summary doesn't even begin to catalog what they experienced in route -- their subsequent book, Running a Thousand Miles to Freedom, is the definitive account.

Ellen is today studied as a historical figure, renowned for her ability to try on different identities during the treacherous trip -- moving from that of a black woman slave to that of a wealthy white man, "performing" as such for sheer survival. Notably, though, it's William who narrates their book; Ellen's perspective is absent.

For the next decade, Ellen toured the North lecturing on her life as a slave and her incredible escape from freedom. But under the Fugitive Slave Act, she and William couldn't live freely in America without fear of recapture -- they moved overseas to England, where they continued to advocate for abolition in the U.S.

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