Although her story does not relate to theatre directly, Ellen Craft plays an important role in Boston’s history and the history of slavery in America.
Ellen Craft was born a slave in Clinton, Georgia in 1829. She was the daughter of white slave master Major James P. Smith and his house slave, Maria. Ellen was extremely light in complexion and was often mistaken for one of Major Smith’s legitimate (and fully white) children. From a young age, she experienced the hypocrisy and absurdity of American slavery. She was often favored and given special treatment because she was the master’s daughter, and yet she was still a slave and therefore considered a piece of property. At the age of 11 she was given to her half-sister as a wedding gift. She was moved to a plantation in Macon, Georgia where she became a “ladies maid” to her sister. Here she met William Craft, another slave on the plantation who would soon become her husband.
As slaves, Ellen and William were able to marry and Ellen was give her own living quarters in a cabin behind the main house. However, Ellen was eager to escape her life as a slave. She did not want to give birth to children knowing that they would be owned and sold by a white man. During the Christmas season of 1848, William and Ellen decided to make their escape.Unlike other fugitive slaves who made their escape in obscurity through the systems of The Underground Railroad, The Crafts made their escape out in the open for everyone to see. Ellen knew her light complexion allowed her to pass as white. In order to make their escape possible, Ellen decided to pose as a wealthy, white, male plantation owner while her husband posed as her slave. Being an excellent seamstress, she fashioned herself a suite, wore spectacles, top hat and cut her hair. Because she couldn’t read or write she also wore a sling and pretended to be injured in order to avoid having to sign anything herself. The two traveled from Georgia to the north by train and steamships, sitting in first-class cabins among other white travelers and even stayed in hotels along the way. Ellen not only disguised herself physically but also assumed the role of a white gentleman completely, often conversing with white travelers who remained completely unaware of her true identity.
By January of 1849 the couple arrived in Boston, settling down in Beacon Hill. At this time Boston was the center of the anti-slavery movement. Within weeks of their arrival their story got out and began to catch the attention of many prominent members of the anti-slavery movement. Abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Lewis Hayden and Theodore Parker supported the young couple and welcomed them into the Anti-slavery community.William Wells Brown, a well known fugitive slave and agent in the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society invited the couple to join him on an anti-slavery lecture tour. With Brown they traveled around New England and told their story. Due to Victorian-era taboos against female public speakers, William Craft did most of the speaking during these lectures. However, Ellen Craft resisted the role of the subservient wife and used her silence to her advantage. As her husband recounted the events of their escape from slavery, Ellen remained stern and motionless on stage. Crowds heard stories of her struggle and pain, yet the figure they saw before them was unwaveringly strong. William and Ellen Craft successfully cultivated a sort of performance when they came to the stage that both challenged and enticed their audiences. At the Massachusetts Anti-Slave Society’s annual meeting at Faneuil Hall on January 23, 1849 William Wells Brown brought The Crafts to the stage to tell their story. This event sparked mass interest in the couple, leaving them to be commented on by reporters for months to come. Commentators were particularly interested in Ellen Craft and her unique presence, one going on to say “firmness, intelligence and perseverance are distinctly and impressively marked on her countenance”. The Crafts and their story became talked about around the country, as well as in the UK, catapulting them into the realm of celebrity. They became an Abolitionist symbol for Anti-slavery sympathy.
Together the Crafts challenged the narrative of what fugitive slaves were supposed to be. In a time when slaves were seen as wild savages or docile livestock, William and Ellen were refined and intelligent. Their youth, resourcefulness and love for one another forced white audiences to see their humanity. Rather than begging for sympathy, The Crafts were portrayed as confident, bold and independent which garnered adoration and respect from abolitionists. By assuming a presence of immovable silence and strength Ellen Craft asserted her own independence on abolitionist stages. She portrayed a sense of self-ownership that set her apart from her husband and William Wells Brown alike. Ellen Craft was one of the first women to be put on the stage at Anti-slavery gatherings. As a mixed race, white-passing woman Ellen challenged both images of the suffering slave and ideas of a post-racial society. She accepted her blackness and womanhood, yet her story highlighted the performative nature of race, class and gender in the society around her. In a country where race, class and gender were seen as fixed things, Ellen’s story of escape challenged this notion by showing the ways in which a black slave women could convincingly assume the role of a wealthy, white man. Ellen Craft subverted stereotypes and revealed the paradoxical nature of the race and class structures set in place at the time.
Ellen Craft utilized the technology of her time to capitalized on her ability to challenge stereotypes. She posed for a Daguerreotype (image is formed on a highly polished silver surface) dressed in her male disguise. The Daguerreotype, which was distributed around the country, conveyed an image of masculinity and whiteness. However, the person was the photo is a black woman in disguise. This photo forced people to confront the binaries that dictated the order of their society and realize that they weren’t as fixed as they had previously thought.Ellen Craft revealed that masculinity, privilege and whiteness aren’t just inherent pieces of one’s identity but rather something that can be put on by those who society deems as unfit to navigate the world in such a way. Ellen Craft became an icon for the Abolitionist movement because she challenged ideas of race, class and gender through her ability to escape a life of slavery. She helped change the national perception (at least in the north) of what a fugitive slave woman could be. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 forced The Craft family to leave the US and immigrate to London, where they lived for over 20 years. They continued to fight against slavery while abroad and in 1860 they published a narrative of their escape from slavery entitled Running A Thousand Miles for Freedom, which is hailed as one of the most well know fugitive slave narratives to this day.