• Thu. May 30th, 2024

Edinburgh professor secures memory of daring escape from slavery

ByCraig Buchan

Oct 15, 2021
Ellen and William Craft

A professor at the University of Edinburgh has successfully secured a ‘blue plaque’ in memory of two escaped slaves and abolitionist campaigners.

An English Heritage London blue plaque will now mark the address that Ellen and William Craft lived at in Hammersmith after a daring escape from enslavement.

The plaque was proposed by Dr Hannah-Rose Murray, who researches in the School of Literature, Language and Culture at the university.

As well as their names and lifespans, the plaque details: 

“Refugees from slavery and campaigners for its abolition lived here.”

The Crafts used the address at 26 Cambridge Grove to campaign for abolition and radical social reforms.

Ellen and William had initially escaped American slavery in Georgia and fled to Pennsylvania, a feat which involved Ellen, who was the child of a rape on her enslaved African American mother by her white enslaver and thus could pass as white, disguising herself as a disabled man travelling with an enslaved servant to the north of the United States for medical treatment.

They were helped on to Massachusetts by abolitionists, but were then forced to travel to England in 1850 after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Bill allowed their former enslavers to have them captured and returned and left the Crafts’ freedom at risk.

Based in the home now bearing the blue plaque, the Crafts helped organise the London Emancipation Society and travelled the UK giving lectures, with Ellen also participating in campaigns for women’s suffrage, before eventually returning to the United States after the American Civil War brought about the legal emancipation of all slaves.

They published an account of their escape entitled Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom in 1960, helping make them some of the most well-known refugees from enslavement.

In a statement Dr Murray said: 

“Ellen and William Craft were courageous and heroic freedom fighters whose daring escape from US chattel slavery involved Ellen crossing racial, gender and class lines to perform as a white southern man. 

“If caught, they would have been incarcerated, tortured and almost certainly sold away from each other. 

“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 American Civil War. 

“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.”

Anna Eavis, Curatorial Director at English Heritage, added: 

“Ellen and William Craft’s story is incredibly powerful. Their determination to escape from enslavement in the most perilous circumstances, and then to campaign for abolition and win over hearts and minds here in the UK is astonishing. 

“They are an important part of the anti-slavery movement and we are delighted to remember them with this plaque.”

Image: The New York Public Library Digital Collections