Two slaves on board

The most illogical aspect of slavery was the way mixed blood slaves were classified. A half white mulatto was black. A quadroon, only one fourth black, was still black. A white octoroon like Ellen Craft was still a slave, a victim of a 1662 law, "children got by an Englishman upon a Negro woman shall be bound or free according to the condition of the mother." Her father, James Smith, was also her owner. Her mother Maria was a slave on his Georgia plantation.

Mrs. Smith hated this constant reminder of her husband's infidelity. If a visitor commented on Ellen's creamy white complexion, she gave the innocent child a beating as soon as the visitor departed. In 1837, her revenge was complete. She gave the 11 year old slave to Dr. Robert Collins of Macon, severing her ties with her mother, the only person who loved and protected the little girl.

Ellen became a seamstress and dressmaker. These skills would someday help her to escape. In 1846 she met and married a handsome mulatto slave, William Craft.

Craft was both a barber and cabinetmaker. He paid his master $200 per year but could keep any profit he made. They had their own cabin but no children. Ellen vowed she would never bear a child into the misery of slavery. Their only hope was to escape but the nearest free state was hundreds of miles to the north. Freedom was an impossible dream for two illiterate slaves. Any free black who gave a book to a slave was given 39 lashes. A white person was fined $200.

The couple spent almost a year preparing their flight. Ellen sewed a pair of trousers, a ruffled shirt, black coat and tartan cape. William cut her hair. She topped off the disguise with high heeled boots, tinted glasses and a top hat, becoming William Johnson, a wealthy planter traveling to Pennsylvania for medical attention.

But she could not sign his name. Craft solved that by wrapping her arm in a sling to lessen the pain of "rheumatism." Eight days before Christmas, 1848, they met at the railroad station. William, the faithful servant, bought tickets to Savannah then half carried his "young massa" to his seat, where they boarded a steamship for Washington.

The devoted slave brought all his food to his ailing master then slept on the floor outside his cabin to protect him. He told everyone he was taking "Massa Johnson" to Philadelphia where the Yankee doctors could cure him.

A major crisis occurred when they tried to board the train in Washington. Ten years earlier, a slave named Fredrick Douglas had escaped on the same train. The station master told "Mr. Johnson" he had to post a bond to take a slave into free territory. William pleaded that his "young massa" would die if he did not get medical attention, soon. Ellen saved the day. With a voice dripping with scorn, she asked what right he, a public servant, had to question the word of a southern gentleman? The official waved them aboard.

Their daring escape turned the Crafts into international celebrities. They spent 18 years (1851-69) in England campaigning against slavery. They were even received by Queen Victoria.

Relieved of her vow to never give birth to a slave, Ellen bore five children, all of whom had successful business, civil service and diplomatic careers. Ellen, the all white slave, passed away in 1897. Her darker husband followed her three years later.

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