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William Craft

(c. 1825—1900) slavery abolitionist


Related Overviews

James Weldon Johnson (1871—1938)

Nella Larsen (1891—1964)

Passing

George S. Schuyler (1895—1977)

 

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(1826 –1891), escaped slaves, antislavery activists, and educators. William Craft authored Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860), which chronicled his escape with his wife Ellen from Georgia to Boston in 1848, and their subsequent move to London after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act (1850).

The Crafts were heralded for the brazen method of their escape. The fair-skinned Ellen disguised herself as an invalid white man, and William posed as “his” servant. They simply, and quite publicly, rode the train from Macon, Georgia, to Philadelphia, where they revealed themselves to a local abolitionist.

As Blyden Jackson has observed (History of Afro-American Literature, 1989), the Craft story was convincing and therefore useful for abolitionism. The narrative focuses mainly on the journey from Georgia to Philadelphia, and then from Boston to London, cultivating dramatic tension from its unsensational narrative style. Craft expertly presents memorable characters (such as the white gentleman who befriends the disguised Ellen and vouches for “his” ownership of William, allowing them to continue their journey) and memorable scenes (such as innkeepers realizing too late that they had mistakenly assumed Ellen was “white” when they let her a room). The narrative focus on tricking unsuspecting whites cultivates what William L. Andrews (To Tell a Free Story, 1986) describes as “interstitiality,” as the Crafts “temporarily confuse the lines separating sexual, racial and social classification.”

Ellen's triple play on race, gender, and class passing has engaged recent critical interest. In its advertisement of successful passing, the Craft narrative initiates a tradition of literary explorations of passing, such as James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), Nella Larsen's Passing (1929), and George S. Schuyler's Black No More (1931). William Craft's narrative is also significant, as Valerie Smith notes (Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative, 1987), because unlike most slave narratives by men, it presents the escape as a joint endeavor.

From The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Literature.


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