Inside the Boston Public Library, deep in the stacks, are the keys to the 1848 escape from slavery—a fascinating combination of daring and deception. Author Ilion Wu, who spent the past seven years combing through archives from Georgia to Massachusetts, showed Sunday Morning an illustration by Ellen Craft, a print based on a daguerreotype image. “There’s just something magical about holding that paper,” she said.

Portrait of biracial Ellen Craft, who disguised herself as a white man to escape slavery.

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Ellen Craft was a slave and seamstress living in Macon, Georgia in the 1840s. She was the daughter of an enslaved woman who was pregnant by her White slave. “When Ellen Craft was 11 years old, her mother, Maria, had to watch as her daughter was given as a wedding gift to the slave’s eldest daughter, her half-sister,” Wu said.

In the early 1920s, Craft married a slave, William Craft, a skilled craftsman. “They were afraid to have children in slavery,” Wood said, “because their slave could climb into the cradle they made for their child and take their child. And there was nothing they could do in the slave system to stop it.”

They came up with a bold plan: Ellen was to disguise herself as a rich white man who was traveling with “her” enslaved person: her husband William. They would flee north in plain sight.

Wu outlines the history of the Crufts in his new book: “Master, slave, husband, wife”, published by Simon & Schuster (part of CBS’ parent company, Paramount Global).

Simon and Schuster

“She put on this disguise to hide her gender and her race,” Wu said. “And she added disability to that. She knew she would have to sign for William as her slave at various hotels and other stops. And she couldn’t do that because she was denied literacy. And so she had to figure out how to get someone to sign up for her or avoid such a situation. So she puts her arm in a sling. And also puts poultices on the face. It almost serves as a kind of mask.”

Craft made their way from Macon across the South on trains and steamboats, fending off calls from passengers and ticket agents. It almost ended in Baltimore, the last stop before the North. The officer confronted them and Ellen responded by saying, “You have no right to detain us here.”

“Finally the official says, ‘OK, I’ll just let you go,'” Wu said.

– So it’s almost like crossing the wartime border? asked Whittaker.


As a child, Peggy Trotter Demand Presley learned about the incredible journey of her great-great-great-grandfathers. “As black people in America, we have to wear a mask often,” she told Whitaker. “We can’t always let people know what we think. So this disguise, and this cloaking, and this ability to be in a room and absorb was so incredible that it allowed them, during the four days of the escape, to face certain situations and figure out what to do.”

The Krafts traveled first to Philadelphia, then to Boston, where they became the centerpiece of the abolitionist community. They performed at historic Faneuil Hall and became part of a road show featuring such abolitionists as William Wells Brown and Frederick Douglass.

The Krafts stayed at a home in Boston’s Black Beacon Hill neighborhood. But the danger has not passed. Public attention attracted their former enslavers, who sent so-called “slave hunters” to the North to catch them. Congress just passed Fugitive Slave Act 1850which is required public to help capture enslaved people who escaped.

But the abolitionists in Boston weren’t having it. Slave hunters were troubled by both stone-throwing mobs and the legal system.

According to Wu, “there were lawsuits against slave hunters to take them, and there were smaller, more minor arrests. They were arrested for chewing tobacco or driving too fast.

Slave hunters fled from Boston. But the Krafts still didn’t feel safe. They uprooted their lives again, this time sailing to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then to Liverpool, England. They finally learned to read and write there.

Upon arrival in England, the Krafts received not only freedom, but also literacy.

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In addition to letters to fans, they wrote the story of their escape, “Run a thousand miles for freedom” published in 1860.

Wu said, “Almost as soon as they arrive in a safe place, they have really realized their twin dreams, one of literacy and education, and the other of giving birth to a free child.”

About a year after their arrival, their first child, Charles Estlin Phillips Craft, was born. Ellen and William raised a total of five children.

Great-granddaughter Peggy Presley said, “I think the Kraft legacy is really part of our whole family, all the descendants.” She channeled that legacy into civil rights, putting herself at the center of the movement in the 1960s, joining marches in the South. She showed Whitaker a photo of her attending a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee/Albany Freedom Movement event in Albany, Georgia, in 1962: “While we were there, we were put in jail twice, once in the stockade. And this was my third time in prison. in motion.”

Peggy Trotter Demand Presley, great-great-granddaughter of Ellen and William Craft.

CBS News

Presley is also a poet and used poetry to support the daring spirit of Ellen and William Craft:

today we stand
our family is in the eternal circle of grace.
Listening to our ancestors,
calling us through blood, sacrifice and communal space,
rise, carry on, celebrate,
and are stored in this continuum
collective effort and individual sacrifice.
On the steps to liberation.

READ THE PASSAGE: “Master-Slave, Husband-Wife” by Ilion Wu

For more information:

The plot was prepared by Alan Golds. Editor: Ed Givenish.

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