Yesterday I wrote a little about the threat that mixed-race people, who could have any shade of skin, posed to the sharp divisions of Southern society. I wrote about that because Ellen Craft’s skin color played a key role in her and her husband’s escape from slavery in Georgia.
Ellen Craft lived in that mixed-race twilight that so agitated many Southern whites, a constant reminder in her light skin and familiar features of the ubiquitous gray in a supposedly black and white social system. Ellen and her husband, William, published an account of their escape from bondage in 1860. Past editions credited it solely to him, and the narrative follows his perspective, but its great concern for the stories and perspective of women, not to mention Ellen’s central role in the events, lead modern editions to credit both as authors. They write:
My wife’s first master was her father, and her mother his slave, and the latter is still slave of his widow.
Notwithstanding my wife being of African extraction on her mother’s side, she is almost white — in fact, she is so nearly so that the tyrannical old lady to whom she first belonged became so annoyed, at finding her frequently mistaken for a child of the family, that she gave her when eleven years of age to a daughter, as a wedding present. This separated my wife from her mother, and also from several other dear friends. But the incessant cruelty of her old mistress made the change of owners or treatment so desirable, that she did not grumble much at this cruel separation.
The Crafts go on to relate a few stories white children being kidnapped into slavery:
I have known worthless white people to sell their own free children into slavery; and, as there are good-for-nothing white as well as coloured persons everywhere, no one, perhaps, will wonder at such inhuman transactions: particularly in the Southern States of America, where I believe there is a greater want of humanity and high principle amongst the whites, than among any other civilized people in the world.
The accounts, save for one of a German immigrant possibly held as a slave, lack details. I don’t mean to dismiss them, but they seem improbable and the paucity of detail makes them difficult to ever check. They also play a bit too well into the fears that white abolitionists would engender to win broader support: You should oppose slavery because men might come and spirit away your white children to bondage. No one is safe.
Maybe it happened. I do not want to lightly set aside the testimony of those who endured slavery firsthand. But in reading primary sources we must always remember who wrote, for whom they wrote, and to what end they wrote. The Crafts wrote for a British audience generally opposed to slavery but not personally familiar with it. Such shocking notions might spur the British on to greater anti-American attitudes by removing the partial defense that the United States, while half slave, also remained half free. Certainly their lives gave them ample reason to believe just about anything that reflected poorly on slavery. Discerning where the facts end and antislavery urban legends begin I must leave to those far more competent and learned than I.
None of the previous, I emphasize, means that I doubt the truthfulness of the Craft’s own narrative. Only the stories they relate secondhand seem far-fetched to me. Perhaps documented cases exist of which I’ve never heard. As some random guy on the internet, my incredulity doesn’t mean much. When first I looked into it, I didn’t believe that slaves could have formed the majority of a slave state’s population. The facts set me straight and if they do again, I count that a win.