The Amazing Story of William and Ellen Craft

Every year, my kiddo’s school holds an assembly to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. The assembly is uplifting and inspiring for the most part, but sometimes they miss the mark. Last year’s assembly featured a song about how bullying violates human rights, and…yes, that wasn’t incorrect, but Dr. King’s life work was dedicated to achieving racial equality. Bullying didn’t quite match his message.

This year, I was pleasantly surprised when I attended a read-through play held in my son’s classroom. It was based on a true story I had never heard of: the great escape of William and Ellen Craft. The play was slightly difficult to follow, because the cast kept rotating so everyone in class had lines to read, but the story was so fascinating that I found myself wondering how it wasn’t more widely known.

The True Story of a Daring Escape

Th year was 1848. William and Ellen Craft were an enslaved couple from Macon, Georgia. They longed to escape to the north, and William came up with a daring plan. Ellen, who could pass as white, would pose as a white man traveling with his slave. They would take trains, stay at hotels and hide in plain sight while making their way up north. Ellen put her right arm in a sling so that hotel clerks wouldn’t expect to sign any papers. They were both unable to read or write due to Georgia law prohibiting education of slaves. The trip to Philadelphia took four days, and though they had several close calls, Ellen pulled off her disguise as a white slave owner, and William his slave, even when abolitionists approached him to abandon his “master” and run to freedom.

A Complex Task for Ellen

It was wild to learn about William and Ellen’s brazen journey. I couldn’t imagine how harrowing the four-day trip must have been, and how hopeless their enslavement was them to even attempt an escape, knowing that failure meant severe punishment — even death. I was especially in awe of Ellen, who not only had to act white, but a white man in charge. The amount of courage and bravado she needed to muster when she likely had no experience of riding a train or checking into a hotel, it was simply staggering. Ellen’s story was also a reminder of how even white women couldn’t travel on her own back then. William also never broke from his role of a servant slave until both he and Ellen were safe in Philadelphia. 

William and Ellen’s story would make a great adventure film. While their story isn’t told in any film or TV shows, Ellen and William Craft did write an account of their escape in Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. Until their story becomes better known, I’m glad my kiddo’s class introduced me to their story. 

Find out more about Ellen and William in this Smithsonian article:

The Great Escape From Slavery of Ellen and William Craft

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