- The Profits and the Perils of Partnership in the “Thrilling” Saga of William and Ellen Craft
In October 1937, the historian Carter Godwin Woodson (1875–1950) launched the inaugural issue of the Negro History Bulletin. A teacher of social science and language in the secondary schools of the District of Columbia, Woodson dedicated his career to disseminating knowledge, correcting myths, and presenting accurate analyses of the roles of African Americans in US history. In 1915, he founded the progenitor of today’s Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASALH), and in February 1926, he initiated Negro History Week, now a month-long celebration (Hine 405–8). His Negro History Bulletin, a monthly publication for students and educators, inserted the voices of black scholars and critics into Jim Crow America’s segregated African American classrooms (Goggin 1–65). The Bulletin debuted with a front page featuring “The Thrilling Escape of William and Ellen Craft,” about the couple’s journey from slavery in Georgia to freedom in New England, which is framed by a triptych of woodcuts by the African American artist Lois Mailou Jones (1905–1998) (“Thrilling” 1, 5). Almost ninety years had passed since the couple’s feisty 1848 flight from Macon, Georgia, when the light-skinned Ellen Craft (1826–1891) had attired herself as a white, Southern, slaveholding gentleman. She and her dark-skinned husband William (1824–1900),1 pretending to be her slave, had slipped out from under what they called captivity’s “iron heel of despotism” (Craft and Craft 10), hiding in plain sight among white, Southern, slaveholding travelers on trains, carriages, and steamers conveying them North. “Persons still living,” wrote this issue of the Bulletin, “speak of the benefits they received from coming under the influence of William and Ellen Craft” (“Thrilling” 5).
Uncertain whether they would ever return to America, the Crafts spent almost twenty years in transatlantic exile—obtaining an education, making a living, nurturing five children, frantically fund-raising to purchase the freedom of still-enslaved family members—based mostly in their home and sometime boardinghouse at 12 Cambridge Court in Hammersmith, a suburb of London. Only a few months into their English asylum in 1851, William Craft admitted “he had himself a father, and a brother and sisters, and his wife had a mother and a grandmother, who were dragging out life in bondage” (American 17). Six years later, The Newcastle Courant reported that William had “by his ability” tracked down his mother and liberated her from slavery and was working on purchasing his sister’s freedom from her New Orleans owner [End Page 76] (“Slavery”). He had raised money to manumit his mother through sales of engravings of Ellen in her masculine disguise and with donations from a few British friends (Craft and Craft 9–10). In 1865, the Crafts located Ellen’s mother Maria in Georgia and raised funds to reunite mother and daughter in England (“Ellen Craft” 122).
“In England the Crafts were safe,” stated the Negro History Bulletin. “They settled down to the happy life which they had long desired” (“Thrilling” 5). The husband and wife who had traveled a thousand miles from slavery to freedom had traversed many more through London, Leeds, Bristol, Liverpool, Aberdeen, Glasgow, and Edinburgh—and, for William, as far as West Africa—to enlist a transnational audience to abolish US slavery.
Slavery had been a pernicious, never-ending scavenger. As Wai Chee Dimock discusses, slavery and the slave trade had trawled “Asia, Europe, Africa, and the two Americas” over space and time in recursive and “circulatory networks” of global labor, trade routes, capital, and markets “from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, to the Pacific, and back to the Indian Ocean” (7). The Crafts’ heralded anti-slavery activism spanning Europe, Africa, and one of the Americas had not culminated in the consistently “safe” and “happy life” after bondage that Woodson’s Negro History Bulletin and other later remembrances commemorated. On paper, their partnerships with British and American reformers first helped make the case for the abolition of slavery and then positioned them to lead self-help and literacy projects for the freedmen and freedwomen. In reality, the couple...