THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
William and Ellen Craft were born into slavery in Georgia and met when William’s first owner sold him to settle gambling debts at the age of 16. Roughly 6 years later the pair married, though they were not allowed to legally, but not wanting their children to be born into slavery they planned an escape during the Christmas season of 1848.
As Ellen was the daughter of a mixed-race slave and had pale skin, she disguised herself as a man by cutting her hair, while her husband posed as her slave. They managed to escape to Boston, where they became famous among abolitionists, however, bounty hunters chased them down until they fled to Britain in December 1850, which had only been free from slavery for itself for less than 20 years. The Slave Emancipation Act was passed in 1833, and took effect a year later.
The pair learned to read and write before settling in Hammersmith, West London, where their home became a campaign centre for the abolition of slavery in America.
In 1860 the couple published a bestselling book about their courageous escape from slavery in America, Running A Thousand Miles for Freedom.
William Craft wrote: “A very large majority of American slaves are overworked, under-fed, and frequently unmercifully flogged.
“I have often seen slaves tortured in every conceivable manner. I have seen him hunted down and torn by bloodhounds. I have seen them shamefully beaten, and branded with hot irons.
“I have seen them hunted, and even burned alive at the stake, frequently for offences that would be applauded if committed by white persons for similar purposes.
“It is well known in England, if not all over the world, that Americans are notoriously mean and cruel towards all coloured persons, whether they are bond or free.”
He said the book was not a history of his wife or himself, but an account of their escape that he hoped would instil in readers an understanding of the deplorability of the slave trade.
All five of their children, Charles Estlin Phillips (1852–1938), William Ivens (1855–1926), Brougham H. (1857–1920), Ellen A. Craft (1863–1917), and Alfred G. (1871–1939), were born in England, the Craft’s wish of having children born free of slavery coming to fruition.
The Crafts spent 19 years in England, during which Ellen participated in reform organizations such as the London Emancipation Committee, the Women's Suffrage Organization, and the British and Foreign Freedmen's Society. They earned speaking fees by public lectures about slavery in the US and their escape. William Craft set up a business again, but they still struggled financially. For most of their time in England, the Craft family lived in Hammersmith. Ellen turned their home into a hub of Black activism: she invited fellow Black abolitionists to stay, including Sarah Parker Remond, and supported other abolitionists like John Sella Martin.
Having learned to read and write, in 1852, Ellen Craft published the following, which was widely circulated in the antislavery press in both Great Britain and the US. The anti-abolition press had suggested the Crafts regretted their flight to England. In the Anti-Slavery Advocate of December 1852 Ellen said:
”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.”
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.
Hammersmith and Fulham Council Deputy Leader Sue Fennimore said: “This is a fitting tribute to two remarkable Hammersmith residents, whose efforts 150 years ago helped rid the world of slavery. We’re delighted to help celebrate Ellen and William Craft with an English Heritage blue plaque, so all our residents can share in supporting the work they started in the fight against injustice – a fight that is just as relevant today.”
The commemoration will be a twice-fired glazed blue plaque measuring almost 50cm across and is expected to read:
ELLEN CRAFT c1826-c1891
WILLIAM CRAFT c1824-1900
Refugees from slavery
and campaigners for
its abolition lived here.
You can buy a copy of the Craft’s book here.