The following 3 slave escapes are tales of incredible courage, determination, and ingenuity. These stories are shining examples of what the human spirit can endure and overcome. In honor of Black History Month, my hope is that these accounts can be informational as well as inspirational.
3) Slave William and Ellen Craft
One of the most daring slave escapes was made by a married couple from Georgia, Ellen and William Craft. Their escape required cunning, a great disguise, and a bit of luck. They feared they were going to be separated, so they decided to flee to the North where freedom awaited.
Ellen Craft was the offspring of a bi-racial mother and a white slave owner. As such, she had a very light complexion. In fact, Ellen was often mistaken for a member of the slaveowner’s family much to the chagrin of the master’s wife.
Ellen’s light skin gave William an idea. Slave owners were allowed to take their slaves anywhere, including free states. Ellen would pose as William’s master. William would be her loyal manservant.
William was a skilled cabinet maker, so his master likely allowed him to retain some of the income he made from his craft. Taking that money, William bought train tickets for Ellen and himself.
Ellen and William were well-liked, so they were able to gain a few days leave around Christmas. This would give them a head-start when they made their escape.
All the couple had to do was board a train heading North, and maintain their facade until reaching a free state. Upon reaching their seats on the train, however, William and Ellen would find how difficult things were going to be.
William had gone back to the “negro” cart to sit. William looked out the window and saw the owner of the cabinetmaking shop where he worked. The cabinetmaker was walking down the platform outside the train talking with the ticket collector. He then began peering into windows looking for someone.
William feared that they were about to be discovered. He hid his face and slunk low in his chair. Luckily he wasn’t seen. The cabinetmaker thankfully passed by Ellen as well.
The fugitive slaves had an uneventful rest of their train ride. They boarded a steamship in Savannah headed to South Carolina. In Charleston, they would hit another snag.
Ellen was attempting to buy tickets for another ship headed to the free state of Pennsylvania. The ticket seller needed a signature from Ellen, who couldn’t write. Ellen had wrapped her arm in a sling to feign injury. With a bit of luck, the captain of their former ship walked by at that moment and vouched for the two.
Ellen and William’s final hurdle would come at Baltimore. An officer confronted them. The officer demanded proof of ownership from Ellen. Ownership papers were usually requested to prevent white abolitionists from stealing slaves and taking them into free states.
Fearing that they had come so far only to fall short in the end, Ellen and William began to pray. The Lord answered their prayers. The ship’s departure bell rang at that moment, signaling that the officer needed to either detain the couple or let them go. Thankfully to some divine intervention, the officer took pity on Ellen, who looked sickly and sent them on their way.
William and Ellen made it to Philadelphia and freedom on Christmas day. They received help from some abolitionists and were able to develop a life for themselves as free a man and woman.
2) Harriet Jacobs
Harriet Jacobs wanted to escape slavery so badly, she was willing to do anything. She was being regularly raped by her owner, James Norcom. Harriet even had two children with a white lawyer, but Norcom was undeterred. He would continue to rape her throughout her confinement.
However, the rape wasn’t the final straw. Jacobs decided to flee after hearing that Norcom planned to put her children to work on the plantation. She didn’t think she could bear her present situation any longer.
To Harriet, the brutality and mistreatments were shocking. She’d grown up with a loving family who sheltered her from much of the world’s harshness. Seven years of torment had removed the innocence of her youth and replaced it with a hardened yet determined spirit.
As a result, Jacob’s determination allowed her to escape one torment and endure a new type of torment. This new torment was of her own choosing, therefore easier to tolerate…somewhat.
Harriet had run away to live in a crawl space above the porch of a house her grandparents had built. The crawlspace was dark and confining. In a bit of poetic symmetry, Harriet would spend seven years living in the crawlspace, coming down only at night for a bit of exercise.
The torments she endured must have been terrible for her to be willing to live in what equated to a prison cell. Actually, a prison cell doesn’t paint a bleak enough picture. First of all, the crawlspace was small, it was poorly lit, and most disturbingly, Harriet would have rats crawl on her while she slept.
Eventually, Harriet would escape to true freedom in Philidelphia. There she became an anti-slavery activist and would bring to light many of the horrors slave women endure.
1) Henry “Box” Brown
Now, one of the most unique slave escapes was made by Henry Brown. We will get to the “Box” part momentarily. Although, I’m sure you can probably make a good guess based on the picture above.
Henry Brown was motivated to attempt escape due to the fact that his wife and children had been recently sold. Living in a world where his family could be treated like property just wouldn’t do. And so he came up with the idea to mail himself to freedom.
A free black and white shop owner were enlisted to help. They provided a box marked “dry goods”. The box was 3 ft. by 2 ft., barely enough space for the 5’8″, 200 pound Brown.
The box would require a wagon, a steamship, and a train to make it to the final destination. Brown would spend 27 hours inside that box, including 90 minutes upside down. His box was placed upside down on the steamship. At the brink of passing out, some passengers fortuitously flipped the box to use as a seat.
Upon arriving in Philidelphia, Brown’s story gained him some acclaim. Brown’s celebrity also gained him some heat. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 put him at risk of being discovered and sent back.
Brown fled to Britain where he performed the details of his escape. His act would last for years, until his return to the United States in 1875. Once back in the US, Brown became a magician. His magic act would employee the very box that brought him out of slavery many years before.
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