Incredible story of American couple who escaped slavery and settled in Hammersmith
The Hammersmith home of a slave abolitionist couple who escaped slavery in the US state of Georgia have been awarded a blue plaque for their courageous efforts.
Ellen and William Craft lived in Macon, Georgia, and were owned by slave masters in the 1800s.
They married very young, and lived under “slave codes” – a set of rules and laws which prohibited the lives of Black people living under slavery in the South.
At the time, with their marriage not technically legal in the South they feared they could be sold separately by their master and that their future children would be born into slavery.
The couple embarked on a dangerous plan in December 1848 that could have cost them their lives – to escape Georgia.
Ellen was the child of a mixed-race slave raped by her white slave owner and was able to pass as white. She used this to her advantage by posing as a disabled white man who was travelling North for medicine with her servant, William.
Under Georgia law, both Ellen and William were unable to read or write because they were slaves. To disguise this, Ellen’s right arm was placed into a sling so she didn’t need to sign any documents or registry forms upon inspection.
William cut Ellen’s hair to neck length and she wore a pair of men’s trousers, green spectacles and a top hat to shield her true identity. She wrapped bandages around her face to hide her skin and limit conversations with strangers.
They initially stopped in Massachusetts, but were forced to flee the country altogether after Congress passed the fugitive slave bill in 1850, which allowed former slaveholders and slavecatchers to travel from the South to the North where they could drag former slaves back into slavery.
Through rumours, the Crafts heard that slavecatchers were on the hunt to find them.
If they were caught, they could be jailed, sold back into slavery or killed.
There was also the risk of being eaten by animals or dying from severe temperatures.
After living with former slaves in Boston, American abolitions decided that America was too dangerous for the Crafts. They raised enough money for the couple to travel to London, where they lived for nearly two decades.
They survived a treacherous four-day journey to England and eventually settled at 26 Cambridge Grove in Hammersmith, where they raised a family and helped set up the London Emancipation Society.
Ellen and William toured the country and campaigned for the freedom of Black people and told the incredible story of how they managed to escape slavery.
They also published an autobiography, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom.
After the US civil war, the couple returned with their three children to America in 1869 and set up the Woodville Cooperative Farm School in Georgia for the children of emancipated slaves in 1873.
Ellen is believed to have died in Georgia in 1891 while William died in South Carolina in 1900.
The couple’s great-great grandchildren visited their family’s former West London home for the unveiling of the blue plaque.
Dr Hannah-Rose Murray, a historian and proposer of the Crafts’ blue plaque said: “Ellen and William Craft were courageous and heroic freedom fighters whose daring escape from U.S. chattel slavery involved Ellen crossing racial, gender and class lines to perform as a white southern man.
“Their story inspired audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and when the Crafts reached Britain, they were relentless in their campaigns against slavery, racism, white supremacy, and the Confederate cause during the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865).
“I’m so excited that English Heritage has built on previous work by historians, archivists and local activists to honour their presence in Hammersmith and the UK in general, and recognise the Crafts’ incredible bravery and impact on transatlantic society.”
English Heritage said just four per cent of more than 975 blue plaques across London are dedicated to the efforts of Black and Asian people, but have improved this statistic over the past two years with a quarter of English Heritage blue plaques now dedicated to Black and Asian individuals.