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The Daring Disguise that Helped One Enslaved Couple Escape to Freedom

February 28, 2020 in History

By Thad Morgan

In 1848 William and Ellen Craft blurred the lines of race and gender in order to escape slavery.

In the mid 19th century in Macon, Georgia, a man and woman fell in love, married and, as many young couples do, began thinking about starting a family. But Ellen and William Craft were both enslaved and were well aware that any of their future children could be ripped away at any moment and sold as property. So, they devised a bold escape plan.

Ellen would travel from Macon, Georgia to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by train—masquerading as a white man and slaveholder. Her husband, William, would pose as her enslaved valet. It was a risky idea, but their background had prepared them for the moment.

Both Faced Separation From Family in Childhood

Ellen was born in 1826, the illegitimate biracial daughter of a slaveholder and a woman enslaved to him, in Clinton, Georgia. Her fair skin and facial features so strongly resembled her father that she was often mistaken as a member of the family, which frustrated the slaveholder’s wife. In response, the wife “gave” Ellen to her daughter—Ellen’s half-sister—in Macon.

William is thought to be born around rural Georgia in 1824. In order for his slaveholder to repay his debts, 16-year-old William, his brother, sister and parents, were torn apart and sold to different slaveholders, with William ending up in Macon.

It was in this southern town that William and Ellen met and later wed, although the specifics remain unknown. What is known is that the pair was determined to have children and live as a free family. Because Ellen shared many resemblances with her father, they decided she could pull off a disguise as a white man. In fact, the idea wasn’t completely novel.

Using Disguise as Escape

“There were other stories of mixed-race enslaved people, enslaved people who looked white, who passed for white,” says Barbara McCaskill, Professor of English at the University of Georgia and author of . “He seems all very well here, but he may act quite differently there. I know several gentlemen who have lost their valuable n——- among them [damned] cut-throat abolitionists.”

William was also covertly advised by abolitionists to flee as soon as his feet touched free soil. William and Ellen travelled from Charleston via steamer and train to Wilmington, North Carolina and Baltimore, Maryland, among other cities, before finally reaching their destination, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Christmas Day in …read more