Portraits of Ellen and William Craft (Boston African American National Historic Site via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1848, at a time when Black families were routinely ripped apart and Black bodies were bought and sold in public squares as chattel, a Black man and his mixed-race wife pulled off one of the most daring and ingenious feats of self-emancipation imaginable. Defying conventions of race, class, and gender, William and Ellen Craft of Macon, Georgia, transformed their appearances and engineered an extraordinary flight to freedom. Their daring escape energized the abolitionist movement and helped change the course of history.

Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey From Slavery to Freedom by Ilyon Woo Simon & Schuster, 416 pp.

Ilyon Woo’s new book, Master Slave Husband Wife, lifts the curtain on a largely unknown chapter in America’s complicated racial history. In her first book, The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother’s Extraordinary Fight Against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times, Woo wove history and narrative together in a compelling look at 19th-century women’s rights. In this book, she tells the true story of a courageous married couple who challenged slavery, America’s original sin. She also sheds light on America’s original blessing—the efforts of free Blacks and people of all races to answer the clarion call of the Declaration of Independence by risking their own “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” in the fight to end slavery and racial discrimination. 

William Craft, a skilled cabinetmaker, was the property of Ira Hamilton Taylor, a banker who rented him out to a local shop owner. Ellen Craft was the daughter and property of James Smith, who had enslaved and impregnated her mother. When James’s wife could no longer tolerate Ellen’s presence in the house, Ellen was given to her white half sister, Eliza, as a wedding present. She then became the legal property of Eliza’s new husband, Dr. Robert Collins. 

Both Ellen and William were trusted “favorites” of their owners. But favored slave status was no match for their dream of a free life together. William and Ellen first met in 1841, when he was 18 and she was 15. As their relationship deepened, Woo writes, Ellen made clear that she would not marry or bear children until they escaped bondage, “not until her own body—and therefore her children—belonged to her.” Ultimately, however, Ellen relented. Though they were denied a sanctified Christian wedding, with the permission of their owners they “jumped the broomstick”—a tradition among enslaved people, who were denied legal weddings—in 1846. 

Two years later, with Ellen disguised as a wealthy, white, disabled slave-owning man, and William playing the role of her attentive slave, they began a harrowing flight from bondage that took them from Macon through Philadelphia and Boston, on their way to Canada. Traveling by train, boat, steamship, and the Underground Railroad—and relying on Ellen’s ability to pass for white, on her seamstress skills, and on William’s abundant creative instincts—they escaped in plain sight, always one step ahead of capture. After sneaking through the streets of Macon as master and slave, they arrived at the train station. There, they were able to elude their first pursuer, the cabinetmaker from the shop where William worked. The man had tracked them to the station and was looking into train windows for the fugitives when the train pulled out. Ellen also hoodwinked a station porter who had previously known and been interested in her. “This man now called her ‘Young Master’ and thanked her for the tip she gave him,” Woo recounts. From there, it was a four-day race to the Mason-Dixon Line and free soil. But four days was hardly the end of it. In fact, the chase had just begun.

Is it coincidence that the current voting rights debate is center stage in Georgia, the state that denied dignity and voting rights to William and Ellen Craft? 

Woo reminds us that the Fugitive Slave Act—first signed into law by President George Washington in 1793, and later toughened in 1850 by President Millard Fillmore—authorized local and federal government officials to hunt down, capture, and return escaped slaves to their owners and imposed penalties on anyone who aided their flight. This meant that no matter how far north William and Ellen ran, as long as they were on American soil they were in constant jeopardy of being kidnapped and returned to bondage in Georgia. 

Following the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, private citizens in northern states formed so-called Vigilance Committees to protect escaped slaves and thwart the efforts of professional bounty hunters. When Robert Collins sent two men, Willis Hughes and John Knight, to Boston to bring back the Crafts, the Boston Vigilance Committee came to the rescue. With the help of sympathetic local attorneys, commissioners, and judges, the committee orchestrated a series of judicial delays. Hughes and Knight were arrested for conspiring to kidnap the Crafts. Upper-class Bostonians mocked the uneducated slave catchers, and street boys threw spoiled eggs and garbage at them. As Woo writes, “It was too much for the Georgians to bear. They had left Macon as heroes and expected to return triumphant, captives in hand. Instead, they had been the ones chased, ridiculed, spat upon, hunted down by law, man, woman, and child.”

After that incident, the Crafts were advised to keep running to Canada. But they were tired of running. At the urging of the charismatic ex-slave William Wells Brown, they took a detour to join him as powerful speakers on the antislavery lecture circuit. They toured Europe, and then settled in England. This was another pivotal act of courage that elevated them on the international stage. As William regaled audiences with the dramatic retelling of their bondage and escape and Ellen appearing as “the white slave,” their lectures raised much-needed money and support for the abolitionist movement.

In chronicling this expansive saga, Woo does not shy away from recounting some of the most heinous horrors of slavery. But she simultaneously introduces us to the compassion and commitment of a number of white abolitionists, including Quaker families and people like William Lloyd Garrison, Lucy Stone, Robert Purvis, and the Reverend Theodore Parker. These and other men and women like them formed allegiances with Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and other free Blacks on the frontlines of the 19th-century antislavery movement. A number of these activists played key roles in the remarkable self-
emancipation journey of William and Ellen Craft. In fact, it was Parker, a Unitarian minister and avid abolitionist, who ultimately persuaded the bounty hunters Hughes and Knight to abandon their mission.

From their new home in England, the Crafts continued their activism; wrote a book, Running a Thousand Miles to Freedom; founded a school in Africa, and another in Georgia; and mobilized support for the Union side during the American Civil War. They also fulfilled their dream and raised six freeborn children. 

Parts of Woo’s story unfurl with dramatic cinematic sweep, but ultimately this is a meticulously researched work of narrative nonfiction, documented with a bibliography and extensive notes. Woo writes in the opening overture, “Though propelled by narrative, this work is not fictionalized. Every description and line of dialogue originates in historic sources.” 

Woo’s account provides the backdrop for the larger story of the roots of America’s continuing racial divide and the sacrifices many have made to create a more perfect union. We have made great strides since the fight over slavery led to a bloody civil war, but fissures remain, and lingering vestiges of the past still afflict many communities. These include the post–Civil War “Black Codes,” which sanctioned racial discrimination; Jim Crow; redlining; and mass incarceration. 

Is it coincidence that the current voting rights debate is center stage in Georgia, the state that denied dignity and voting rights to William and Ellen Craft? Can we deny that there is a link between the reality that as an enslaved couple, the Crafts were forbidden to learn to read or write, and the separate and unequal education that continues across the United States today? Clearly, the journey to freedom isn’t over. Master Slave Husband Wife is a welcome addition to a growing effort to fill historical gaps and tell the unvarnished truth about the past so we can build a better future. It is a riveting American saga and a teachable moment for these times.

Terry Edmonds

Terry Edmonds is the former chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. A member of the Washington Monthly Board of Directors, he was a 2021 Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative (ALI) fellow and currently serves as a senior editor on the ALI Social Impact Review.