There are many stories that will never be told, narratives lost to history. Whether they were erased purposefully, or lost in the annals of time, there are a great number of stories which will never be known.
Such is not the case for William and Ellen Craft. Theirs is a story that is so unbelievable, many will think it is the product of a creative writer’s imagination. In MASTER SLAVE HUSBAND WIFE : AN EPIC JOURNEY FROM SLAVERY TO FREEDOM, author Ilyon Woo details Ellen and William Craft’s ingenious escape from slavery and their fight to shine a light on the horrors associated with human bondage and the American south.
Posing as a wealthy, disabled white man, Ellen dressed in the finest men’s clothes and traveled with William as “his” slave. Together they hid in plain sight as they made their way from Macon, Georgia to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They traveled by rail, coach, and steamship, avoiding capture, even devising an ingenious plan for concealing their illiteracy.
Once safely in the North, Ellen and William set out to tell their story and garner support for the abolition of slavery. They joined the abolitionists lecture circuit and spoke alongside the likes of William Wells Brown and Frederick Douglas. However, when a more punitive FUGITIVE SLAVE LAW passed in 1850, the Crafts found themselves on the run from slave hunters looking to recapture them and return them to their masters.
As dubbed by Ibram X. Kendi, Octopus laws allowed the South to stretch their tentacles into the North, bypassing state officials appealing directly to federally appointed commissioners with outsized powers. On the word of the slave master and two identifying witnesses, without any due process and no way defend against it, an alleged fugitive could be returned to slavery. If you assisted a fugitive, you risked jail time and fines.
On the speaking circuit, Ellen’s story was particularly captivating to white audiences because she passed as white. They could see themselves in Ellen and it scared them to think that a “white woman” could also be considered a slave. I couldn’t help but think how awful it must’ve been for William and Ellen to have to relive their trauma over and over for white audiences.
Reading this book, I was struck by how much has NOT changed in almost 200 years. Trying to reconcile good people from bad ideas, someone actually uses the phrase “there were good people on both sides”. Change a couple words around and the ideas presented here are very similar to the political climate of 2023. It’s hard not to read words like, “there can be no such thing as a peacable secession,” and not think we were discussing the attack on basic human rights happening today.
The Crafts never stopped running from the horrors of slavery. Their story, while not Hollywood-perfect, deserves to be told. Throughout the book, Americans struggle to reconcile their ugly history with who they tell themselves they are. There are many quotes alluding to tensions that are just as relevant today as they were 200 years ago. I still hold out hope that there’s time to affect change.