Stories You Won’t Hear in Florida Schools

Once upon a time (1826) a slave girl was born in Clinton, Georgia to a mixed-race slave mother owned by a wealthy planter, Major James Smith.  Our Major Smith is the father of the little girl. He was married with girls of his own.  Nonetheless, like many slave masters married or not, he would occasionally visit the slave quarters and exercise his property rights.  His wife knew of course, but simply turned a blind eye.

Today we would call it rape.  But not in Georgia in 1826.

Let us call the little slave girl Ellen.   Ellen was very fair, (she was probably 3/4 European) and resembled her white half-siblings, her slave owner’s legitimate children. Smith’s wife gave the 11-year-old Ellen as a wedding gift to her daughter Eliza Cromwell Smith, Ellen’s half-sister to get the girl out of the household and remove the evidence of her husband’s infidelity.

After Eliza Smith married Dr. Robert Collins, she took Ellen with her half-sister to live in the city of Macon where they made their home.  Ellen grew up as a house servant to Eliza, which gave her privileged access to information about the area.

In Macon at the time was a 16 year old slave called William.  He met Ellen when his first owner sold him to settle gambling debts. Before he was sold, William witnessed his 14-year-old sister and each of his parents being separated by sales to different owners. William’s new master apprenticed him as a carpenter and allowed him to work for fees, taking most of his earnings.  

Ellen’s owner Dr. Collins had a half interest in William. At the age of 20 Ellen married William, now to be known as William Craft.

Craft saved money from being hired out in town as a carpenter. Not wanting to have a family in slavery, during the Christmas season of 1848 the couple planned an escape.

Taking advantage of her light skin, she would kye her hair, acquire the proper clothes and dress as a man accompanied by her servant, William.

Together they planned their escape north.  She dressed as a man since, at the time, it was not customary for a white woman to travel alone with a male slave.  It was however quite common for a southern gentleman to travel with his servant.

She also faked illness to limit conversation, as she was prevented from learning to read and write with the threat of death because she was enslaved. William was to act as personal servant while she impersonated a man.

During their escape, they traveled on first-class trains, stayed in the best hotels, and Ellen dined one evening with a steamboat captain. Ellen dyed her hair and bought appropriate clothes to pass as a young man, traveling in a jacket and trousers. William used his earnings as a cabinet-maker to buy clothes for Ellen to appear as a free white man. William cut her hair to add to her manly appearance. Ellen also practiced the correct gestures and behavior. She wore her right arm in a sling to hide the fact that she could not write. She muffled her face and coughed regularly to keep folks away and from starting conversations.  They traveled to nearby Macon for a train to Savannah. Although the Crafts had several close calls along the way, they were successful in evading detection. On December 21, they boarded a steamship for Philadelphia, in the free state of Pennsylvania, where they arrived early on the morning of Christmas Day.

Their innovation was in escaping as a pair, though it was Ellen’s bravery and genius which made their escape successful.

Soon after the Crafts’ arrival in the North, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison encouraged them to recount their escape in public lectures to abolitionist circles of New England. They moved to the well-established free black community on the north side of Beacon Hill in Boston, where they were married in a Christian ceremony. Ellen Craft posed in her escape clothes for a photograph. It was widely distributed by abolitionists as part of their campaign against slavery.

During the next two years, the Crafts made numerous public appearances to recount their escape and speak against slavery.   It was a time when women generally did not speak to mixed public audiences.  William would tell their story and Ellen would stand with him on stage.  In April, 1849 she took the stage on her own speaking to 900 abolitionists in Newburyport, Massachusetts to thundering applause.   There was great public interest in the young woman who had been so bold.

And they lived happily ever after.

No.  Not yet.

In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which increased penalties for aiding fugitive slaves and required residents and law enforcement of free states to cooperate in capturing and returning formerly enslaved people to their owners. The act provided for a reward to officers and simplified the process by which people might be certified as slaves.

A month after the new law was effective, Dr. Collins sent two bounty hunters to Boston to capture the Crafts.  Upon arriving in Boston they were met with resistance by both white and black Bostonians. Abolitionists in Boston had formed the biracial Boston Vigilance Committee to resist the new Slave Bill; its members protected the Crafts by moving them around various “safe houses” until they could leave the country. The two bounty hunters, regularly facing rock throwing abolitionists finally gave up and returned to the south. Collins then appealed to the President, Millard Fillmore, asking him to intervene so he could regain his “property”. The President agreed that the Crafts should be returned to their enslavers in the South and authorized the use of military force if necessary to take them.

It was time to flee again. This time through Maine to Halifax where the couple sailed to Liverpool and freedom, notwithstanding Britain had a King.  “They were aided in England by a group of prominent abolitionists, including Wilson Armistead, with whom they were residing in Leeds when the census was taken in 1851 and who recorded his guests as “fugitive slaves”,and Harriet Martineau who arranged for their intensive schooling at the village school in Ockham, Surrey.”

Southerners claimed that Ellen regretted her flight ot England  Having quickly learned to read and write, Ellen replied in the abolitionist press:

So I write these few lines merely to say that the statement is entirely unfounded, for I have never had the slightest inclination whatever of returning to bondage; and God forbid that I should ever be so false to liberty as to prefer slavery in its stead. In fact, since my escape from slavery, I have gotten much better in every respect than I could have possibly anticipated. Though, had it been to the contrary, my feelings in regard to this would have been just the same, for I had much rather starve in England, a free woman, than be a slave for the best man that ever breathed upon the American continent.

— Anti-Slavery Advocate, December 1852

The Crafts spent 19 years in England, where they had five children together. Ellen participated in the London Emancipation Committee, the Women’s Suffrage Organization, and the British and Foreign Freedmen’s Society.  After the end of the Civil War Ellen located her mother Maria in Georgia; she paid for her passage to England, where they were reunited.

In 1868, after the American Civil War and passage of constitutional amendments granting emancipation, citizenship and rights to freedmen, the Crafts returned with three of their children to the United States. They raised funds from supporters, and in 1870 they bought 1800 acres of land in Georgia.

They lived and worked there for 22 years until moving to Charleston to live with their daughter Eliza  who was married to Dr. William D. Crum. He was appointed Collector of the Port of Charleston by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Ellen Craft died in 1891, and her widower William on January 29, 1900.

  • In 1996, Ellen Craft was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement.
  • Their life, accomplishments, and history are displayed at the Tubman African American Museum in Macon, Georgia
  • In September 2018, at the village of Ockham, Surrey, where they found refuge, a sign commemorating their escape was unveiled at an event attended by their great-great-grandson Christopher Clark and other descendants.
  • Their residence in Hammersmith, London is commemorated by a blue plaque on the wall of the newly named Craft Court.

Your kids in Florida schools will never hear this.



About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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8 Responses to Stories You Won’t Hear in Florida Schools

  1. beth says:

    Florida is so terrifying

    Liked by 1 person

  2. beetleypete says:

    Thanks for that history that I was unaware of, Frank. And well done to Hammersmith in London, and the people of Ockham, (population 410) for commemorating the Craft family.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Maggie says:

    I despise DeSantis.

    Liked by 1 person

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