Recently read a book called Running A Thousand Miles For Freedom by William and Ellen Craft, two former slaves. Man, it was incredible to read their story. Frankly, I've never been a huge reader of black history. I think many of us would rather forget it because of the emotions it raises. Many of us would rather focus on more positive things, pretend everything is okay, and we were never slaves. Read more about the story of William and Ellen Craft here.
Running A Thousand Miles for Freedom was written by William and Ellen Craft and published in 1860. Both William and Ellen Craft were born into slavery in the state of Georgia. Throughout their time as slave, they witness horrors unimaginable at the hands of slave owners.
At that time slaves were considered as property of the slave owners and were therefore, treated as such. Mothers were separate from their children who were sold all across the state. Our women were subject to the cruelest of treatments by their lust-filled owners. Our men deprived of basic human dignity reduced to nothing more than cattle who if caught running away, were tortured beyond belief. This is the environment, William and Ellen faced as they contemplated their freedom.
What follows is an excerpt from William's personal story and the tearing apart of his family:
"But before our time expired, my old master wanted money; so he sold my brother, and then mortgaged my sister, a dear girl about fourteen years of age, and myself, then about sixteen, to one of the banks...My poor sister was sold first...Then I was called upon the stand. While the auctioneer was crying the bids, I saw the man that had purchased my sister getting her into a cart, to take her to his home...I then turned to the auctioneer, fell upon my knees, and humbly prayed him to let me just step down and bid my last sister farewell. But, instead of granting me this request, he grasped me by the neck, and in a commanding tone of voice, and with a violent oath, exclaimed, 'Get up! You can do the wench no good; therefore there is no use in your seeing her.'
"On rising, I saw the cart in which she sat moving slowly off; and, as she clasped her hands with a grasp that indicated despair, and looked pitifully round towards me, I also saw the large silent tears trickling down her cheeks."
After surviving this and many other crimes, in 1848, William and Ellen devised a plan whereby Ellen would pose as a white male slave owner and William "his" slave. Ellen was the daughter of a slave and a white master, thus, in appearance, she was indistinguishable from a white person. Once it was decided, William began by purchasing the required items for his wife's disguise from random places around town at odd times. Most shops would not refuse money even if it came from a Negro.
Ellen was fortunate in that she was a favorite with her master and afforded her own room where she hid the items William acquired. With all the pieces in play, timing was critical. If they chose to make a run for it, even with a well maid plan and disguise, hunters would be fast on their heels. During this time, some slave owners would allow their slaves a pass to take a few days away from their work during Christmas. William and Ellen were both fortunate enough to receive such passes from their old masters. This would be enough to give them a head start on their escape.
Initially, their goal was just to get to Philadelphia. They had dreams of what it was like there where Negroes resided in freedom, although, even in the North, Blacks were viewed as inferior. So, they set off on December 21st, 1848 via train which was perilous in itself. As trains were really the fastest means for interstate travel, train stations were on the lookout for runaway slaves. In fact, all along their journey, William and Ellen received nothing less than Divine protection.
In one instance, they recount not being allowed to board the train to Philadelphia from Baltimore because of a lack of credentials. Specifically, the station officer would not allow William to depart north because he could not confirm his "master" was William's lawful master. However, Ellen had managed to befriend another white traveler on their previous voyage to Baltimore who vouched for Ellen who he presumed to be a white slave owner. Another key to Ellen's disguise was she kept her arm in a sling as if disabled to prevent from being forced to write which she could not do since it was illegal for slaves to learn to read and write.
Eventually they arrive in Philadelphia on Christmas Day where they stayed at a boarding house recommended by a free Negro William met on the train. This particular boarding house was kept by an abolitionist. It was in Philadelphia, they learned the basics of reading and writing from the Ivens family. However, their joy in arriving to Philadelphia was short lived as they were still fugitive slaves.
William and Ellen then fled further north to Boston where again they had the fortune of being assisted by the Vigilance Committee of Boston and a Rev. Samuel May who had connections in England. The Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850 demanded, under hefty penalties, individuals in the free states assist in the capture and return of fugitive slaves. Around this time, William and Ellen received word that their old masters sent slave catchers after them who were close on their trail. Thus, to England, they would sail. It was not until they arrive in Liverpool that they truly felt free and unafraid.
Running A Thousand Miles for Freedom is a powerful story and reminder of the danger our ancestors lived with daily and more importantly braved and fought against. If you ever get a chance to read this story, please do so. It is a short read and probably available as a pdf download on Google.
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