We all wear lots of different hats. There’s the hat at work. The hat we wear when we are with our family. We wear a hat when we’re with our irresponsible friends, and another when we’re with our responsible friends. And while it’s always a challenge to balance our different personas, I doubt any of us have been in severe danger if we accidentally wore the wrong hat in front of a small child, or worst, our parents.
Meet Ellen Craft. Ellen was born as a fair-skinned slave in 1826 Georgia. Even though she bore an uncanny resemblance to her master’s children, she was given away at the age of 11 as a wedding gift (and as a way to remove all evidence of her father’s marital infidelity with one of his slaves).
She met her future husband, William, at the age of 16. They wanted to be married but back then slaves weren’t allowed to get married by a priest. They were, however, allowed to hold a ceremony known as “jumping the broom,” where (shocker!) they jump over a broom and bam! They were legally married… well not legally. And not married. But like they officially loved each other. And sometimes their masters would even allow them like five minutes to hold a reception to celebrate their commitment to each other.
Ellen and William desperately wanted to get married and Ellen’s husband had witnessed first hand how slave owners tore families apart. At age 16 he was separated from his parents and two siblings when they were sold to various owners across the South. Ellen and William lived under constant fear of being separated from each other and knew if they ever started a family, they wouldn’t want to do it as slaves.
Ellen and William devised a plan to flee the South using her fair complexion as a disguise. Back then men were allowed to travel with their male slaves but women were not. Ellen chopped her hair and dressed in men’s clothing. Since slaves weren’t taught to read or write, she wouldn’t be able to sign or read any papers so she put her arm in a sling and wore thick glasses to avoid any awkward confrontations. She was also weary of her feminine voice so they crafted a story that she was very ill and they were heading to the medical mecca of Philadelphia (which also happened to be in a free state!) While slaves weren’t allowed to speak unless spoken to, Ellen had to run the whole charade by herself… and maybe with a little moral support from her trusting companion.
After some close calls and an encounter with a few flirtatious gold diggers, Ellen and William made it to Philadelphia where they were welcomed by the underground abolitionist network. They received reading lessons and after three weeks they moved to Boston. Two years later, slave hunters arrived in Boston looking for them so they fled to London where they raised five children. After 20 years of living under the Union Jack, the Crafts moved back to Georgia and started the Woodville Co-operative Farm School to teach and employ newly freed slaves.
So the next time you are faced with a challenge that requires you to step out of your comfort zone, remember Ellen. She bravely face the racist and misogynistic systems of 1800s America by pretending to be a white man. If there was ever a term needed to replace the words “Trojan Horse” I nominate the name Ellen Craft.
I first heard Ellen’s story on the the podcast Criminal. I couldn’t believe that I had never heard her story of bravery. It made me wonder what other woman's stories were out there that should be told, especially stories from women of color. Ellen’s story sparked the idea for Do It Like a Lady. Our goal is to share stories that should have been in our history books but weren’t.