Academic journal article African American Review

"Yours Very Truly": Ellen Craft - the Fugitive as Text and Artifact

Academic journal article African American Review

"Yours Very Truly": Ellen Craft - the Fugitive as Text and Artifact

Article excerpt

Hide the outcast. Bury not him that wandereth. Let mine outcasts dwell with thee. Be thou a covert to them from the face of the spoiler. - Isaiah 16:3-4 (qtd. in Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery 98)

From 1830-1860, in the decades that foregrounded the Dred Scott Decision, Fugitive Slave Law, Secession, and Civil War, the published lives of African American women resulted from both restless imaginings and raw guts. Free African American women who wrote of their sisters and themselves in letters to the antislavery press constantly negotiated matrices of silence and speech, of servitude and freedom, of chaos and humanity, of ignorance and education, of solitude and community. One paradigm for the issues enunciated by these letters of antebellum African American women and extended in their separately published autobiographies is provided by material written by and about the American fugitive Ellen Craft.

As proof of the difficulties that African American women endured in setting their own voices down in print, most of what we now possess of Ellen's story is contained, and occasionally subsumed. It is in a bricolage of letters, reports, and reminiscences written and delivered by others that Ellen's story appears. The best known source of this testimony is Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860), her husband William's recounting of their tandem flight from bondage in Macon, Georgia, and subsequent sensational adventures as fugitives. In December 1848 the couple undertook an audacious escape from their captivity. As William's narrative recalls, the light-skinned, virtually white Ellen, child of her own white master and "her mother his slave" (2), disguised herself as a wealthy yet rheumatic Southern gentleman on pilgrimage to Philadelphia for ameliorative treatments. Since husband William possessed black skin and discernably African features, he undertook the charade of posing as his "master's" attentive, obedient servant [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Cross-dressing as a means of eluding detection - born of the Crafts' keen, creative resolve to be free - was not unique to this couple. William Still, who escorted hundreds to safety along the corridors of the Underground Railroad, remembered, "Men disguised in female attire and women dressed in the garb of men have under very trying circumstances triumphed in thus making their way to freedom" (1). One example of such ingenuity was Clarissa Davis of Virginia, who sidled aboard a New England-bound boat clothed as a man; Mary Millburn, too, elected to escape captivity by stealing aboard a ship attired as a man; and Maria Weems from the District of Columbia, as a girl of fifteen, devised to evade her pursuers by masquerading in male disguise (Still 60-61, 177-89, 558-59). We are also told that Harriet Tubman, most illustrious among the Southern fugitives, once disguised a Black man as a bonneted woman in order to obstruct his arrest and re-enslavement by Northern deputies; and Tubman herself, who wore pants during her raids with Union soldiers, was valorized for posterity as Moses by her fellow African Americans (Sterling, Sisters 222-23, 260-61). Thus, while Ellen and William's decision to escape as a pair distinguishes their flight from other examples of role reversal, Ellen's masculine disguise in and of itself was no innovation.

In truth, writes William in his narrative, Ellen herself "had no ambition whatever" to disavow her gender,

and would not have done so had it been possible to have obtained our liberty by more simple means; but we knew it was not customary in the South for ladies to travel with male servants; and therefore, notwithstanding my wife's fair complexion, it would have been a very difficult task for her to have come off as a free white lady, with me as her slave; in fact, her not being able to write would have made this quite impossible. (35)

Difficulties arose from Ellen's lack of reading and writing skills (William, too, was illiterate when they escaped): Both "had, by stratagem, learned the alphabet while in slavery, but not the writing characters" (85). …

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