Some of the best stories are true.
Quotes taken from William's book Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery.
Ellen Smith was born a slave in Georgia in 1826. Her mother was a slave named Maria and her father was their owner, Colonel James Smith. Because of this, she was very light-skinnedto the point that she was often mistaken for being white or even a member of the family (though technically she was, being a bastard slave, she certainly was not considered to be one). When she was only eleven years old, she was given as a "wedding present" to her mistress' half-sister (being the daughter of her husband and one of the chattel, she was undoubtedly disposed of gladly).
Ellen then lived with her new owners in Macon, Georgia. It was there she met William Craft. Like Ellen (and tens of thousands or more slaves during the days of this "peculiar institution"), he had been separated from his family (due to his owner's gambling debtsin fact, the whole family was broken up). He belonged to a banker and had been apprenticed as a carpenter in order to make money for him through his labor.
As is common even in the oppressed, the two were able to forge a bond that turned into love. They were even allowed to marry in 1846. While in itself a bit "progressive" (for the time), they were not allowed to live together, since they were owned by different people. At first they considered attempting to "endeavour to make ourselves as comfortable as possible under that system" ("but at the same time ever to keep our dim eyes steadily fixed upon the glimmering hope of liberty, and earnestly pray God mercifully to assist us to escape from our unjust thraldom"). They saved what meager earnings that could and began to plan. Two years later they would escape.
The "plan" was both daring and ingenious. Because "slaveholders have the privilege of taking their slaves to any part of the country they think proper, it occurred to me that, as my wife was nearly white, I might get her to disguise herself as an invalid gentleman, and assume to be my master, while I could attend as his slave, and that in this manner we might effect our escape." So because of Ellen's light (and presumably more Caucasian) features, she dressed in a black suit and cape, high boots, and green-tinted sunglassesand posed as a white man named William Johnson.
To further cover their identities, she wore had her arm in a sling (to avoid discovery that she was illiterate) and wrapped her jaw in a bandage (claiming dental problems) to cover her features and lack of beard. Also, because of her "toothache," she rarely spoke. To support the arm injury story, William would perform many tasks for her, including cutting her food (while traveling on a steamer, this first class passenger and white gentleman was able to dine at the captain's table aided by her Negro slave). His needed ministrations and help with his owner's handicap also allowed William to stay close and quarter with Ellen on the journey.
Along the way, William was once asked if he wanted his liberty. He replied "Yes, sir...but I shall never run away from such a good master as I have at present." It was then mentioned that once they reached Philadelphia he "will open his eyes" and "see things in another light."
Amazingly enough this was successful. The hoped to connect with the famous Underground Railroad but because it didn't reach down to Georgia, they had to travel in this way north until it could be found. When they had arrived in Baltimore, they were nearly stopped when they were informed a slave could not purchase a ticket without a written statement from the master. Obviously this presented a problem, given the arrangement. William was forced to beg and plead for his "master," explaining that he could not write and was in terrible pain and needed to travel to Philadelphia to see a dentist. Fortunately this worked and the ticket master allowed him to purchase two tickets.
They arrived in Philadelphia. All the strain had made Ellen sick and she had to be nursed back to health while they stayed with a Quaker family. This was not a permanent solution as Philadelphia was known as a place where runaway slaves went to hide and get help moving further north. Upon her recovery, they were helped to travel to Boston, a center of the abolitionist movement, where they were helped through the network of free blacks and escaped slaves and sympathetic whites.
The couple managed to get work as a seamstress and cabinetmaker. They became involved in the abolitionist movement and even began to give speeches at antislavery meetings. Many newspaper articles appeared about such meetings. Articles that appeared as far away as Macon, Georgia. Because in 1850 Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which in William's words was "an enactment too infamous to have been thought of or tolerated by any people in the world, except the unprincipled and tyrannical Yankees," they were no longer safe despite being in a "free" state. Ellen's former owner (current owner in the eyes of the "law") sent out two slave catchers to retrieve his "property."
Within a short time of the passage, the community got together and formed a group called the League of Freedom in order to resist the law. It was headed by an ex-slave named Lewis Hayden who had escaped via the Underground Railroad to Boston. Ten days later, another group was formed: the Committee of Safety and Vigilance. Its purpose was "to secure the colored inhabitants of Boston from any invasion of their rights" (www.nps.gov). It maintained locations where the "fugitives" were hidden (including William and Ellen for a time). At Hayden's home, he reportedly kept two kegs of gunpowder next to the door and he and his wife would greet bounty hunters while holding candles. They would inform them that they would rather drop the candles than give up any protected slaves.
After an unsuccessful attempt to catch William at his place of work and an unsuccessful attempt to have the men arrested for murder, it became clear that even the protection of the committee would not guarantee safety. When the slave owners had heard of the treatment of their men, they wrote to President Millard Fillmore asking for help/intervention in collecting the runaway property. Agreeing that they should be returned, he even authorized military force in taking back the couple. It was decided that they would need to escape to England, where slavery had finally been abolished in 1838.
Before leaving Boston, the two had themselves officially married, with a religious service and certificate. Among their gifts were a bible and a bowie knifeone "to save their souls" and the other to "protect their freedom" (www.nps.gov). They did not leave for England immediately, though, spending time in a few other cities (the last being Portland, Maine) before traveling to safety and freedom. This was necessary, since Boston harbors were being watched so they got their ship in Canada.
The two spent seventeen years in England, during which they had five children, lectured, attended school, and even taught. Though they were offered higher positions at the school, they declined, feeling it important to show their fellow slaves in America that they could be self-sufficientin Ellen's words, "I had much rather starve in England, a free woman, than to be a slave for the best man who ever breathed upon the American continent."
While there (1860), William wrote a narrative, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery, of the escape. In it he not only gave their background and the elements of the story, but made comments and observations on slavery and attitudes of people met along the way (quite a variety of people giving a good cross-section of the ways people thought about the subject). Also important in the work was how he portrayed slavery. He ended the book with (leaving out the final four line verse):
In the preceding pages I have not dwelt upon the great barbarities which are practised upon the slaves; because I wish to present the system in its mildest form, and to show that the "tender mercies of the wicked are cruel." But I do now, however, most solemnly declare, that a very large majority of the American slaves are over-worked, under-fed, and frequently unmercifully flogged.
I have often seen slaves tortured in every conceivable manner. I have seen them hunted down and torn by bloodhounds. I have seen them shamefully beaten, and branded with hot irons. I have seen them hunted, and even burned alive at the stake, frequently for offences that would be applauded if committed by white persons for similar purposes.
In short, it is well known in England, if not all over the world, that the Americans, as a people, are notoriously mean and cruel towards all coloured persons, whether they are bond or free.
Following the Civil War, the couple felt it safe to return to their former home in Georgia. There they did what they could to help fellow blacks and former slaves. They purchased a farm where ex-slaves could come and work to escape the hard labor system they remained trapped in despite emancipation. They even started a school (having as many as seventy-five students at one timeall taught free of charge) so that workers and their families would have a true home-community.
Unfortunately, it didn't quite work out. The Ku Klux Klan burned down their fist one and the second closed because of the opposition and slander by whites who were angered by the attempt to promote self-sufficiency and dignity. It was probably also frustration at seeing this group of "inferior", even subhuman, chattel who had previously been under their dominance and control begin to make it succeed.
Ellen died in 1891, followed by William a month later. The farm had to be auctioned off to pay off debt.
While the story doesn't quite end happily, the tale of courage and conviction and love of the two transcends any mere adventure story and inspires to this day. In 1996, Ellen Craft was honored by induction by the Georgia Women of Achievement, an organization dedicated to "honoring women of Georgia who made extraordinary contributions to society." As for William, his narrative remains in print and is also easily available online.
(Sources: www.gawomen.org/honorees/long/crafte_long.htm, www.nps.gov/boaf/craft~1.htm, www.skybusiness.com/sweb/mi.html, text from the book from docsouth.unc.edu/neh/craft/craft.html)