This true story chronicles the amazing lives of Ellen and William Craft. In 1848, they escaped the bonds of slavery, traveling by train and steamship from Macon, Georgia to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ellen was light-skinned and wore a disguise to portray herself as a wealthy, disabled white man and her husband, William, was her slave on the journey. The story itself is described in gripping detail and kept me on the edge of my seat. They encountered several people they knew during the first part of their escape. But Ellen, having been exposed to white gentility, knew how to act like a gentleman. Once they arrive in Philadelphia, they are helped by a network of freed slaves and abolitionists. Ellen and William begin speaking publicly about their harrowing journey, astounding audiences with their story. But it quickly becomes clear they aren’t safe, and the couple relocates to Boston.
The Crafts continue to speak out on the evils of slavery, joining other famous lecturers like William Wells Brown and Frederick Douglass. Then the Fugitive Slave Act is passed in 1850. Woo describes in agonizing detail the decisions the Crafts must make of whether to once again run or stay in Boston. They know they have a target on their backs since they are infamous runaways. They eventually decide to leave for England via Canada, where they can truly be free and have children that will not live in bondage.
There are so many things that struck me about this book. One is that all of the details are sourced. Much of the sourcing is from the Crafts’ own book and is supported by newspapers, diaries and other archival material. It makes the people in the book come alive and have agency. The book is incredibly readable. Also, the author brings to life so many of the people that helped the Crafts along the way. This includes Williams Wells Brown, the Haydens (a self-emancipated couple that helped shelter the Crafts in Boston), Robert Morris (one of the first Black attorneys in the U.S.), and so many others. The book places the Crafts within the larger story of abolition at that time and gives a nuanced look at the divisions within the abolitionist movement without dragging the story down.
Woo also doesn’t shy away from describing the horrors of enslavement. She writes of moments when families were torn apart, watching loved ones being sold at slave auctions, never to see each other again. When the Crafts first arrived in Philadelphia, they are greeted by a white Quaker family, and Ellen is scared–never has she been treated well by a white woman. But in time, the two grow close. Even as the Crafts move to England, Williams is astonished at how people of different races can walk down the street together, unbothered. Unlike in America. It’s details like these that bring the Crafts’ story and pre-Civil War America to life. The Crafts eventually returned to America and opened schools to educate the children of formerly enslaved people.
Master Slave Husband Wife is a powerful story of Ellen and William Craft. It’s the story of a couple who loved America enough to want to see it live up to its ideals of equality and freedom.