ARTICLE: McCaskill on William and Ellen Craft’s ‘Partnership’

Note from Ira Aldridge to Ellen Craft

Barbara McCaskill. “The Profits and the Perils of Partnership in the ‘Thrilling’ Saga of William and Ellen Craft.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 38, no. 1 (March 1, 2013): 76–97.


In October 1937, the historian Carter Godwin Woodson (1875–1950) launched the inaugural issue of the Negro History Bulletin. A teacher of social science and language in the secondary schools of the District of Columbia, Woodson dedicated his career to disseminating knowledge, correcting myths, and presenting accurate analyses of the roles of African Americans in US history. In 1915, he founded the progenitor of today’s Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASALH), and in February 1926, he initiated Negro History Week, now a month-long celebration (Hine 405-8). His Negro History Bulletin, a monthly publication for students and educators, inserted the voices of black scholars and critics into Jim Crow America’s segregated African American classrooms (Goggin 1-65). The Bulletin debuted with a front page featuring “The Thrilling Escape of William and Ellen Craft,” about the couple’s journey from slavery in Georgia to freedom in New England, which is framed by a triptych of woodcuts by the African American artist Lois Mailou Jones (1905–1998) (“Thrilling” 1, 5). Almost ninety years had passed since the couple’s feisty 1848 flight from Macon, Georgia, when the light-skinned Ellen Craft (1826–1891) had attired herself as a white, Southern, slaveholding gentleman. She and her dark-skinned husband William (1824–1900),1 pretending to be her slave, had slipped out from under what they called captivity’s “iron heel of despotism” (Craft and Craft 10), hiding in plain sight among white, Southern, slaveholding travelers on trains, carriages, and steamers conveying them North. “Persons still living,” wrote this issue of the Bulletin, “speak of the benefits they received from coming under the influence of William and Ellen Craft” (“Thrilling” 5).

Uncertain whether they would ever return to America, the Crafts spent almost twenty years in transatlantic exile—obtaining an education, making a living, nurturing five children, frantically fund-raising to purchase …

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