Book Review: "Master Slave Husband Wife" by Ilyon Woo
A fascinating account of a young couple's escape from slavery has been rescued from the shadows of history and given the rich treatment it deserves.
William and Ellen Craft — an enslaved couple in Macon, Georgia — began talking about escaping to the North for the first time on the night of December 17, 1848. After only four nights of planning and preparation, they ran. They received no assistance from any person or organization and, as Ilyon Woo writes in Master Slave Husband Wife (published earlier this year), “they moved in full view of the world, harnessing the latest technologies of their day: steamboats, stagecoaches, and, above all, an actual railroad, riding tracks laid by the enslaved, empowered by their disguise as master and slave”.
Because Ellen’s skin colour was extremely light, she was able to dress and pass as a young white man of stature, who was disabled and unwell, on his way to Philadelphia for medical treatment; William, one of his slaves, was assisting him. A key element in their escape: they had both requested (and received) passes to travel for three days; Ellen asked her half-sister (who received 11-year-old Ellen as a wedding present) to visit a sick aunt and William, who sometimes was loaned out to a local cabinetmaker, asked his employer for a pass to accompany his wife. These passes meant that no one would be expecting to see William or Ellen for three days. By the fourth day, the earliest point they might be deemed as “missing”, they would already be in Pennsylvania.
While William was given credit publicly for the escape plan, Woo makes a strong argument that it was Ellen who came up with the idea of cross-dressing. According to the accounts of the shocked people who saw Ellen dressed as a man and then saw her in her usual clothes a little later, it was a very convincing disguise (much more so than the drawings in the book would lead you to believe). The couple initially made their way separately in the dead of night to the train station in Macon. From there, they took a train to Savannah, Georgia, then a steamboat to Charleston, South Carolina, and finally a second steamship to Philadelphia. The trip took four harrowing days.
Despite barely having slept for a week and disoriented from a trip that had been tension-filled from the start (they encountered three people they knew in the first hour on the train leaving Macon), the Crafts were almost immediately on the road again as part of an abolitionist speaking tour. They told the story of their escape at every stop. The New York Herald of January 17, 1849 reported this “Singular Escape from Slavery” roughly three weeks after it had happened.
The couple eventually hooked up with William Lloyd Garrison (the outspoken publisher of the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator) and William Wells Brown, a masterful storyteller (and after 14 years, still considered a fugitive from the South), and became near-celebrities among New England abolitionists. While William did most of the talking during these engagements, Ellen did speak at times and was one of the first former female slaves on the lecture circuit.
Hundreds of supporters in Boston helped the Crafts evade capture by Georgian bounty hunters who were empowered by law — the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 — to bring them back to their enslavers, who would likely torture and kill them. The Crafts also spent some time in Canada before sailing for England to agitate for the worldwide eradication of slavery.
The Crafts’ story is a remarkable, inspiring slice of American history I had never heard before — which should not be much surprise, considering the myriad ways the United States has concocted — right up to the present day — to bury and erase the unsavory portions of its history. That attempt to rewrite history is going on right now throughout the country, most specifically in Florida schools, where Governor Ron DeSantis is leading an authoritarian crusade to ban books depicting and celebrating the diversity of human existence. In several states, history textbooks are being rewritten to dilute or delete portions of history that might make white children “feel bad about their race”.
[DETOUR: There is no genetic foundation for placing humans in different “racial” categories. Race is a human invention, dating from the late 18th century and used to justify slavery, colonization, etc.
In 2001, Barbara J. Fields, a professor at Columbia University specializing in southern history and 19th century social history, described racism as “the assignment of people to an inferior category and the determination of their social, economic, civic and human standing on the basis of that assignment” and called it “an act of peremptory, hostile, and supremely consequential, indeed sometimes fatally consequential, identification”, and stated:
[T]he slave society of the United States was the only one in the hemisphere that developed a systematic pro-slavery doctrine. You don’t find that anywhere else. Bondage does not need justifying as long as it seems to be the natural order of things. You need a radical affirmation of bondage only where you have a radical affirmation of freedom. . . .
Colonial Americans did not develop a systematic rationale for bondage . . . Because as long as numerous people of European descent were bound by legal servitude, freedom was not something to be taken for granted as the natural order of things. The Anglican catechism used to include language in which persons seeking confirmation promised to do my duty in that station of life unto which it has pleased God to call me. When people take it for granted that God has ordained subordination then that’s generally enough.
Special justification for bondage is needed when freedom is widely seen as something to be assumed as part of the natural order. The “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal” kind of summary that is not simply a formula of words but actually represents something that people living around them could see as a more or less normal fact of everyday life. In other words, the everyday world encouraged Americans of European descent to define freedom as a self-evident natural right, to which persons of African descent were an anomalous exception. The same everyday world called for a rationale equally self evident and equally natural to account for that exception. . . .
Americans of European descent invented race during the era of the American Revolution as a way of resolving the contradiction between a natural right to freedom and the fact of slavery.
Woo’s lean and evocative prose is a near-perfect example of narrative non-fiction. She is masterful at weaving historical background information into her main narrative. As a non-fiction author who often, when reading a book, finds a portion of his brain analyzing how it has been put together, I actually paused at several points to marvel at how nearly seamless her transitions were. Woo draws from a wide variety of sources, including the Crafts’ own account of their lives: Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. She cites a 1999 edition published by the University of Georgia Press and edited by Barbara McCaskill, who in 2015 published Love, Liberation, and Escaping Slavery: William and Ellen Craft in Cultural Memory.
Woo shows that while slavery was illegal in the Northern states, very few people cared to get rid of it. It wasn’t their problem, after all, and the economies in the cities above the Mason-Dixon Line were so dependent on the products of slavery, the barbaric practice was tolerated. The belief that Blacks were happier and better off in slavery was a common one in the North as well as the South. If Blacks were freed, it was thought they would be unable to support themselves and could “flood the North with their poverty and cheap labour”.
While Woo doesn’t dwell on the horrors of slavery, they’re never far away from the text. William is haunted by the last time he saw his sister — when she was sold as a young teenager at auction and taken away in a carriage. Likewise, one of the possible reasons for Ellen’s reticence to speak publicly was that her mother was still enslaved and Ellen feared reprisals. Descriptions of beatings and whippings are brief but powerful. Slaves often laid on their stomachs as their backs were ripped open by whips. Before pregnant slaves were whipped, a hole would be dug so when the woman laid on the ground, her extended belly would fit into the hole and protect the enslaver’s property she was soon to deliver.
There are also several light-hearted moments in MSHW. My favourite concerns Robert Purvis, the president of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, who was Black, but frequently assumed to be white. (From his records, he estimated he assisted 9,000 slaves escape to the North.) In 1834, at age 24, he was set to take a transatlantic voyage to England to speak against slavery and colonization. Before he left, he learned that a Virginia plantation owner had complained to the shipowners that a Black man was going to be on board the ship (and could they do something about that). Purvis decided to travel on another ship at that time, but he was booked on the original ship (as was the Virginia man) on his return. It was one of the few times in his life Purvis opted to “pass”.
Once aboard, the Virginian, recognizing Purvis as a cultured, elegant gentleman, invited him to dine. Purvis soon charmed the Virginian and his circle of friends, not to mention their ladies on the dance floor. One Mr. Hayne, a brother of the late South Carolina senator Robert Hayne, expressed repeatedly on the voyage that “the negro was only a little removed from an animal” and that Black blood “in the veins of anyone could always be detected, particularly by a Southerner.” This same man pulled Purvis out of his sleeping berth to dance with his daughter.
I actually laughed out loud after that last line — which is perfectly written for the punch line to land with maximum effect. A brilliant little gem. I trust Purvis enjoyed that memory for many, many years.
An excerpt from the beginning of the book appeared in the Boston Globe in January.
Woo’s first book — The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother’s Extraordinary Fight Against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times — is an account of one of 19th century’s most infamous divorce cases.