Everyone should know the story of Ellen and William Craft, the subjects of Ilyon Woo’s Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey From Slavery to Freedom. In 1848, Ellen, a light-skinned Black woman, disguised herself as a wealthy, young white man in a wheelchair. William, her husband, accompanied Ellen as an enslaved man, tending to his “master’s” needs. Together they traveled in disguise from the mansion in Georgia where they were enslaved to freedom in the North. Every step of their journey depended on them keeping their wits about them, especially for Ellen. Ship captains, train conductors and even a friend of her enslaver were fooled by Ellen’s ability to perform a role that transformed her demeanor in every conceivable way—from woman to man, Black to white, slave to master. Their self-emancipation was a triumph of courage, love and intelligence.
Yet the Crafts’ story is more than a romantic adventure, and Woo does an excellent job of providing historical context for the dangers they faced without losing the thread of a terrific story. The Crafts’ lives were not magically transformed merely by crossing the Mason-Dixon Line, Woo explains. The North, while free, was still hostile territory for self-emancipated Black people, with rampant bigotry and racism even among abolitionists. However, the greatest danger to Ellen and William was the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which required everyone to return formerly enslaved people to their enslavers and forced the Crafts into exile in England until after the Civil War.
The real strength of Master Slave Husband Wife comes from Woo’s exploration of how Ellen was perceived and treated after her spectacular escape catapulted her into celebrity. Woo, whose earlier book, The Great Divorce, explored another convention-defying 19th-century woman, makes the excellent point that Ellen’s method of escape was not only brilliant but transgressive, defying conventions of gender and race. Even the fair skin tone that allowed her to pass as white was the product of generations of rape, giving the lie to myths of the “happy slave.” With empathy and admiration, Woo details Ellen’s quiet refusal to conform to the racist, classist and sexist expectations of her enemies, benefactors, supporters and even her husband. Thanks to Woo, Ellen is finally at the center of her own story as someone who heroically challenged America’s myths of equality and freedom.