Previous in this series: Some Context. White Children Sold into Slavery? Ellen’s Life in Bondage William’s Life in Bondage The Dismemberment of William’s Family Quoting the Slave Codes Full text of the narrative.
As much as the auction block, the unwelcome attentions of masters slaves could not resist, the beating, the threats of beating, and the possibility of murder beggar belief, William and Ellen Craft lived with it all for every day of their lives until 1848.
The horrifying slave codes, the Crafts knew firsthand, actually whitewashed slavery:
From having been myself a slave for nearly twenty-three years, I am quite prepared to say, that the practical working of slavery is worse than the odious laws by which it is governed.
In no respect did the laws see them as people. In no way did they grant even the slightest particle of agency. But the Crafts lived with that, William from 1824 and Ellen from 1826. They could see a better life around them every day, reserved for those who had the foresight to choose white mothers. But they survived slavery that long. What moved them to finally run?
Most slaves, at least before the Civil War made running much easier, did not. Many who did could point to particularly harsh treatment spurring them to, in Frederick Douglass’ words, pray for freedom with their feet. William’s great sorrow, seeing his family auctioned away from him, took place during his sixteenth year. He remained a slave for seven more. Ellen, though still facing all the perils of slavery, had relatively kind words for her final owner. The Crafts do not seem like great prospects for flight.
But the Crafts did not ultimately flee for themselves:
At an early age we were taken by the persons who held us as property to Macon, the largest town in the interior of the State of Georgia, at which place we became acquainted with each other for several years before our marriage; in fact, our marriage was postponed for some time simply because one of the unjust and worse than Pagan laws under which we lived compelled all children of slave mothers to follow their condition. That is to say, the father of the slave may be the President of the Republic; but if the mother should be a slave at the infant’s birth, the poor child is ever legally doomed to the same cruel fate.
Their future sons would know toil and brutality to enrich another who saw them as no more than expensive farm tools. Their future daughters might face a different fate:
It is common practice for gentlemen (if I may call them such), moving in the highest circles of society, to be the fathers of children by their slaves, whom they can and do sell with the greatest impunity; and the more pious, beautiful, and virtuous the girls are, the greater the price they bring, and that too for the most infamous purposes.
Any man with money (let him be ever such a rough brute), can buy a beautiful and virtuous girl and force her to live with him in a criminal connexion; and as the law says a slave shall have no higher appeal than the mere will of the master, she cannot escape, unless it be by flight or death.
In endeavouring to reconcile a girl to her fate, the master sometimes says that he would marry her if it was not unlawful However, he will always consider her to be his wife, and will treat her as such; and she, on the other hand, may regard him as her lawful husband; and if they have any children, they will be free and well educated.
I am in duty bound to add, that while a great majority of such men care nothing for the happiness of the women with whom they live, nor for the children of whom they are the fathers, there are those to be found, even in that heterogeneous mass of licentious monsters, who are true to their pledges. But as the woman and her children are legally the property of the man, who stands in the anomalous relation to them of husband and father, as well as master, they are liable to be seized and sold for his debts, should he become involved.
William’s first owner made no such promises to him, but he arrived at the auction block by just that route. Ellen, of course, knew the other half of the story from her own life as the daughter of her owner. They fled not for their own freedom, but to spare their future children the horrors of slavery.