In January 1849, fugitive slave couple William and Ellen Craft arrived in Boston after traveling over 1000 miles from captivity in Macon, Georgia. Their harrowing escape -- in which the fair skinned Ellen disguised herself as a White gentleman and the dark-skinned William played the part of her doting slave - illustrates both the power of the Underground Railroad in Boston's antebellum Black community and the power of militant abolitionism in the face of federal pro-slavery legislation.
In his 1860 narrative Running A Thousand Miles for Freedom, William Craft stated: "It is true, our condition as slaves was not by any means the worst; but the thought that we couldn't call the bones and sinews that God gave us our own . . . haunted us for years." Although both William and Ellen were enslaved in the notorious rice paddy region of Macon, GA, neither of them were forced to endure the strenuous life of rice cultivation that afflicted so many of their brethren. William was let out to a White cabinet-maker, a practice that was common in Macon during the ante-bellum era, and an occupation that provided William with a trade few slaves were fortunate to get. Slaves who had learned a trade not only sold well at auction, they also had some autonomy, limited though it was, over their own work. Ellen worked as a "ladies' slave," a position that gave her favoritism within the White household where she worked. Upon marriage in 1846, William and Ellen Craft began to search for a way to escape to the north. Although they had heard stories of those who had come before them, slaves who had stolen away at night or disappeared while being let out in the local market place, they feared being separated and sold further down south if captured. Finally, in 1848, they decided upon a plan to disguise Ellen as an infirm White man, and William, as a faithful slave, accompanying his "master" to Philadelphia for medical treatment. On December 21, after obtaining passes from their respective masters to travel to the next town for the Christmas holiday, William and Ellen used the money that William had been saving from his apprenticeship to board a train to Savannah. After traveling by train and steamboat through the coasts of South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington D.C., and Maryland, the Crafts arrived in Philadelphia on Christmas Day, 1848. After spending three weeks with a Quaker farmer and his family, the Crafts arrived in Boston, where William found work as a cabinet maker and Ellen found work as a seamstress. They boarded at the home of Lewis Hayden, a boarding house that often served as a rendezvous for fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad.
In September, 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, which not only provided for the return of fugitive slaves to their masters in the south, but also mandated the assistance of federal marshals and private citizens in the fugitives' capture. The abolitionists in Boston responded by holding a meeting at the African Meeting House on October 4, 1850, during which they voted to organize a group called the League of Freedom to protest the capture of fugitives. The League of Freedom voted Lewis Hayden president and William Craft vice-president. Ten days later, on October 14, the League of Freedom was absorbed into the Boston Vigilance Committee, designed "to secure the colored inhabitants of Boston from any invasion of their rights."
On October 20, 1850, agents Hughes and Knight were sent by the Crafts' former owners to Boston to catch the fugitives. The actions of the abolitionist community, as well as the co-ordinated efforts of African-Americans throughout the Beacon Hill neighborhood, is indicative of the power of nineteenth century Black Bostonians, and their White allies, in the face of institutionalized racist policy. Vigilance Committee member William I. Bowditch transported Ellen Craft to the home of abolitionist Ellis G. Loring in Brookline and then to the home of Rev. Theodore Parker. William Craft remained in the Hayden home on Phillips Street, which Lewis Hayden turned into a veritable fortress, vowing to blow up his entire residence rather than surrender a single fugitive within his care. Members of the Vigilance committee relentlessly harassed Hughes and Knight by documenting their every move in the popular Liberator magazine, verbally assaulting them as they wandered the streets, and even having them arrested for slander.
After members of the Vigilance Committee approached Hughes and Knight at their hotel with news that they would not be safe if they remained in Boston any longer, the slave catchers left the city. However, with the warrant for the Crafts' arrest still in the hands of the federal Marshal, the Vigilance Committee was well aware that the couples' safety was not a guarantee. Rev. Samuel May, a friend of the Crafts and a member of the abolitionist struggle, both locally and nationally, sent a letter to abolitionist contacts in Bristol, England. With assurance that they would be provided for in Bristol, the Crafts traveled from Portland, Maine, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and finally to Liverpool, where they remained until after the Civil War. While working with anti-slavery organizations throughout England, William and Ellen Craft continued to contribute to the cause of emancipation and racial uplift that characterized their journey from slavery, to freedom, to activism, and, finally, to safety. As William Craft stated at the conclusion of his 1860 narrative, "We shall always cherish the deepest feelings of gratitude to the Vigilance Committee of Boston . . as well as our numerous friends, for the very kind and noble manner in which they assisted us to preserve our liberties, and to escape. . . like Lot from Sodom, to a place of refuge." The Craft case was the first of its kind in Boston, and, although it would not be the last, it set precedent for the militant activism of Black and White abolitionists of the 1850s. In the eyes of the country, Boston, due primarily to the strength and resolve of its Black community, was a place where the evils of slavery and the brutality of the Fugitive Slave Law would not be tolerated.
Bontemps, Arna, ed. Great Slave Narratives. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.
Strangis, Joel. Lewis Hayden and the War Against Slavery. Linnet Books, 1999.