Black History Month: William & Ellen Craft’s escape to freedom

Published: Feb. 8, 2022 at 3:38 PM EST
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - A daring scheme and a cunning disguise helped a Georgia couple pass through Savannah undetected as they escaped from slavery, but their story didn’t end with a journey to freedom.

Christmas Day, 1848. A day of celebration and new beginnings.

“You have to imagine these are two resilient, courageous people,” Richmond Hill Historical Society board member Carey Daughtry said,

William and Ellen Craft, once enslaved in Georgia, had escaped to freedom.

“They came through here on the 21st of December, 1848 on the train. They got off the train and I guess they read down to the river and got a boat and they traveled by every which away before they landed in Philadelphia on Christmas morning 1848,” said Dr. Walter Evans, collector of African American art and manuscripts.

The couple devised a plan to escape.

“She changed race, gender and class,” Dr. Evans said.

Born to a black woman and her white enslaver, Ellen used her lighter skin to their advantage.

“She dressed up as a well-to-do white planter, business person, with a top hat. They were illiterate so she put her arm in a sling so she wouldn’t have to write along the way. He was her manservant,” Dr. Evans said.

The Crafts made their way north, moving undetected in plain sight. But life on the run didn’t end on Christmas Day in 1848.

“In the beginning of 1850, the fugitive slave law came into effect and their owners came looking for them,” Dr. Evans said. “So what they did, they got on a ship and sail to England.”

Their story was heralded in London newspapers and the couple would later document their escape in a book, “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom.”

In the next two decades, the Crafts presented anti-slavery lectures and raised a family in England. But in 1870, they decided to come home.

“After the Civil War, this would definitely be a hotspot for needing some sort of reconstruction that they could perhaps be a part of helping,” Daughtry said.

With the help of financial backers, the Crafts purchased 1,800 acres of land and settled in Bryan County. They opened the Woodville Cooperative Farm School in 1873.

“Their whole goal was to educate the kids that were here, the African American children, that didn’t have the opportunity to read and write because they didn’t when they were young here,” SCAD Museum of Art Visitation Coordinator Kristin Poitras said.

In that spirit of education, the Crafts’ story is being told today at the SCAD Museum of Art - where you can follow in their footsteps.

“The medallion marks the place where they arrived in Savannah. They arrived on the train from Macon and would have entered almost exactly in the spot that the medallion is placed inside the lobby.”

The Crafts’ great-great grandchildren are featured in a new documentary short on display in the SCAD Museum of Art and online. SCAD has also created a curriculum to share the Crafts’ story. It’s available in the museum and is making its way into schools.

“It’s so important that we tell the story. The crafts were committed to educating the students and children in their area when they returned and over in London. So we just kind of want to continue that legacy and share it with as many students as we can.”

According to historical accounts, Ellen Craft was buried on the family’s land in what is now Richmond Hill, but no marker exists. The Richmond Hill Historical Society tells the Crafts’ story on its website, but is looking to do more. It has applied and will be awarded a grant through Americana Corner in order to further tell the story of their escape to freedom and their return to Bryan County. That grant will be awarded on February 22, 2022.

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