BAIA BITS: William and Ellen Craft


Little Moments Where Knowledge Meets Art

Artwork by Shanequa Gay, SCAD B.A., painting, 2015

Talk about your intersectionality… The recent buzzword—which refers to the interconnected nature of such social categorizations as race, class, and gender and their related systems of discrimination or disadvantage—has undoubtedly increased in popularity during the 21st century.  But, that said, few real-life scenarios speak to the concept of intersectionality as compellingly as the extraordinary 19th century case of William and Ellen Craft.

On December 21, 1848, Ellen and William, an enslaved married couple from Macon, Georgia, got written permission from their masters as “favored slaves” for several days of Christmas leave. Such favoritism was not unusual given the darker William’s exceptional skills as a cabinetmaker and his light-complected wife’s status as the daughter of the plantation owner and his enslaved mistress. However, this leave, as far as the enslaved couple was concerned, would be permanent.

In preparation for their escape, the savvy William concocted an outrageous plan where he cut his wife’s hair to neck length while Ellen sewed a pair of men’s trousers and donned them along with a pair of green spectacles and a top hat. Further embellishing her on-the-spot transition, Ellen wrapped bandages around much of her face to hide her smooth skin and put her right arm in a sling to avoid having to sign any papers required at hotels or other establishments. By the time they set out on their bold and bizarre journey north, Ellen had transformed into a white male cotton planter traveling with his enslaved servant, William.

For four days, despite some hairy moments where their true identities were almost revealed, the brave couple—who, as favored property, had been allowed to save some earnings while enslaved—traveled first-class on trains, stayed in the best hotels, and even dined with a steamboat captain. On Christmas morning in 1848, William and Ellen Craft successfully reached Philadelphia and freedom by way of one of the most ingenious escapes from slavery in American history.

But the story doesn’t end there. In 1850, the Crafts abandoned their Boston residence and fled to England after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act enabled southern plantation owners to reclaim their escaped property from the North. A decade later, while living in London, the Crafts chronicled their bold escape in the book, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. Then, in the 1870s, the two would return to the US and, despite harassment by the Ku Klux Klan, establish a school in Georgia for the formerly enslaved.

In tribute to the Crafts and their bold rebellion against American slavery, SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia has produced the documentaryA Thousand Miles and Counting, which recounts their daring escape through the mouths of the couple’s current-day descendants. In an historical irony, the Craft’s escape route passed through the Central of Georgia Railway depot, the same location where the SCAD Museum of Art stands today with its lobby adorned by a commemorative medallion honoring the 19th century couple.

Join SCAD and Commemorate a liberatory journey at ‘A Thousand Miles and Counting’ film screening and talk. The event is on Monday, November 15th, at 5:30pm at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia. Click here for more information. 

Artwork by Shanequa Gay, SCAD B.A., painting, 2015

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