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Enslaved Woman Hiding in Plain Sight: A Story of Daring Escape

What did it take to escape from slavery? How was it possible? No matter how many accounts we gather about the creativity, courage, collaboration involved in escape, we know some pieces of the puzzle will always be missing. When we encounter these stories, we must remember that there are many more that we’ll never know.

Ellen and Williams Craft were enslaved in separate households in Georgia. They got married, and shared the trauma of being separated from their families at a young age. Ellen and William did not have children while enslaved, fearing that they’d be taken away.

William was allowed to keep a small fraction of the wages he earned as a cabinetmaker in a shop where his owner collected the rest of the money. He and Ellen planned to leave around Christmas, coming up with an elaborate plan.

They planned to disguise themselves as slaveholder (Ellen) and slave (William) traveling to the North to see a dentist. Ellen cut and sewed her own clothing into men’s trousers. She cut off her hair, and was light-skinned enough to pose as a slaveholder (she was the daughter of a former slaveholder and a biracial slave). 

It was illegal to teach slaves to read or write, so Ellen would not be able to sign for hotels, train tickets, etc. She put her arm in a  sling to avoid having to write, and she wrapped her head in gauze to avoid the obligation to speak to strangers and risk them hearing her voice.

With her short hair, her handmade men’s clothing, her arm and head in gauze, and a top hat, she was ready to take tremendous risk for her freedom. She and William boarded a train to Savannah on December 21, 1848. She stared out the window for a while, and when she turned back around, she realized she was seated next to one of her slaveholder’s best friends, who’d known her for a long time. To avoid conversation, Ellen pretended to be deaf.

After changing trains in Charleston and Baltimore, they arrived in Philadelphia on Christmas morning, 1848. From there, they were connected with the Underground Railroad and received support and assistance. The couple eventually had five children and opened the Free School for Africans in 1870, leaving a little-known legacy of bravery and commitment to freedom.

We know their story because they wrote a book in 1860 chronicling the details of their escape. During Black History Month, we consider the many stories–and lives–lost to slavery. What did we learn about slavery in school? Which stories were left out? What is the benefit in sharing stories of brave Americans like Ellen and William Craft, and why do you think their story gets overlooked?