White Male Privilege: The Deceptive Escape of Ellen Craft

A depiction of Ellen Craft in her disguise from the (Granger Collection, New York)

A depiction of Ellen Craft in her disguise from the (Granger Collection, New York)

“MY wife and myself were born in different towns in the State of Georgia, which is one of the principal slave States. It is true, our condition as slaves was not by any means the worst; but the mere idea that we were held as chattels, and deprived of all legal rights -- the thought that we had to give up our hard earnings to a tyrant, to enable him to live in idleness and luxury -- the thought that we could not call the bones and sinews that God gave us our own: but above all, the fact that another man had the power to tear from our cradle the new-born babe and sell it in the shambles like a brute, and then scourge us if we dared to lift a finger to save it from such a fate, haunted us for years.”

Hundreds of slaves made the heroic and uncertain journey from southern slave states to freedom in the North. Male slaves were more likely to escape to the North because of physical ability, less responsibility to children, and at times less supervision from Slave Masters. They usually made the journey alone because it was safer and faster than traveling in a group. Runaway slaves traveled at night and hid in forests and safe houses by day when making the hundreds of mile journey. It was dangerous and few slaves successfully made it to North but the reward of freedom greatly outweighed the risk.

Ellen and William Craft’s story is remarkable for many reasons. They yearned for freedom and both came to the conclusion they could no longer tolerate their servitude. Their love for each other was so great they never hesitated or questioned an escape together and the plan they devised was unique from any other.

The key to their escape relied on one key aspect; Ellen’s skin complexion. Ellen Craft was fair complexioned because both her father and grandfather were white slave owners. Her father was the owner of her mother, and her grandfather the owner of her grandmother. Her genealogy highlighted the dynamic of white slave owners abusing their power and procreating with enslaved women. This meant she was owned by her father, and at the time of the publishing of their escape story her mother was still owned by her white father’s widow.

 When Ellen was young her Slave mistress resented the fact that she could pass for a white child and was often mistaken as a legitimate child of her master and mistress. She treated Ellen inhumanely and eventually gave her to her white half-sister as a gift.

Years later, when Ellen and William Craft married they began devising a plan of escape. It was William who thought up the idea that Ellen disguise herself as a white slave owning man and he her slave. At first she bucked the idea out of fear they would be caught but when she thought of her current condition and how she was not seen as a woman but as mere chattel she knew she could no longer live in the dehumanizing system of slavery.

William an Ellen were owned by two separate masters and were afforded a pass to leave their perspective plantations for a few days during the holidays. Once the couple obtained their passes they met at Ellen’s cottage to devise their plan for escape. The first obstacle they had to surmount was recording their names in visitor books at hotels and the custom houses of Charleston, which was customary at the time. Neither Ellen nor William knew how to write. Ellen had the idea to bind her right arm in a sling and request her name be written for her because she was injured.  William cut his wife’s hair short and had her put on the full disguise. He knew she would pass. Clothes were only one part of the charade; she used the boldness of White male confidence and assertiveness to pull off one of the most impressive, crafty, and successful slave escapes in history.

William (left) and Ellen disguised as an invalid, white male, slave owner (right) as imagined by artist Judith Hunt

William (left) and Ellen disguised as an invalid, white male, slave owner (right) as imagined by artist Judith Hunt

(From this point on it is important to note that Ellen is fully disguised as a White Slave owning man)

That morning they took separate routes to the train station. Ellen bought train tickets from Georgia to Pennsylvania for herself, a slave owning gentleman, and her “slave” aka her husband. The trip was relatively smooth sailing until they reached Baltimore, Maryland. As they were boarding the train to Philadelphia they were stopped and asked off by an employee who said they would not allow a slave to pass into a free state without he and his master satisfying questions first. Both of them were terrified but believed God had not brought them this far in their journey not to see them through to the end, so bravely they stepped before the officers.

In the train room Ellen was told “It is against our rules, sir, to allow any person to take a slave out of Baltimore into Philadelphia, unless he can satisfy us that he has a right to take him along” the officer continued “if we should suffer any gentlemen to take a slave past here into Philadelphia; and should the gentleman with whom the slave might be travelling turn out not to be his rightful owner; and should the proper master come and prove that his slave escaped on our road, we shall have him to pay for; and, therefore, we cannot let any slave pass here without receiving security to show, and to satisfy us, that it is all right.” Although shaken Ellen did not concede. She protested officers saying she was a proper slave owner and had bought passage for herself and her slave through to Philadelphia and it was her right to finish that journey.

As they were being questioned they attracted a great deal of attention because it looked odd for an Invalid upstanding slave owner and his slave to be detained. Ellen was asked if she knew another slave owner in Baltimore that could vouch for proper ownership of William. The men questioning them would not budge. It was at that moment the Crafts felt all hope was lost. The train whistled it’s approaching departure and the interrogators had a decision to make. The officer ran his hands through his hair and said “I really don’t know what to do; I calculate it is a right. As he is not well, it is a pity to stop him here. We will let him go.” The Crafts rushed to the train and set out to their new, free life, in Philadelphia.

Ellen Craft is one of the bravest women in American History. She transgressed both racial lines and gender lines to secure her freedom. The need to disguise herself as a White male Slave owner illuminated in the best way the tenuous social intersection Black Women sat at. She obviously could not escape her slave condition because of her race so she used her light complexion to pass as a white person. Even if she chose to pass as a white woman, being a woman would not have allowed her the autonomy to travel out of the south, especially accompanied by a male slave. One façade necessitated the other and gave birth to Ellen Craft the white man. We know the Craft’s story because William Craft recorded it himself. He waited 12 years after their escape so he could learn to write and so their story would be in his own words.

This is a story of love, rebellion, and one woman’s extreme bravery to take her life, and the life of the one that she loved, into her own hands.


Book- Through Women’s Eyes: An American History With Documents by Ellen Carol DuBois and Lynn Dumenil pg 195-198.

https://web.archive.org/web/20081010142706/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu:80/toc/modeng/public/CraThou.html (The full text of William Crafts original story)

Andreia Wardlaw