Policing Black Lives

I don’t feel that I can say much about the most recent series of unarmed black people murdered by armed white people in uniforms which others have not already said better. I defer to Ta-Nehisi Coates on the subject.

But friend and blogfather Sean Treacy referred me to this paper about the history of American policing. After describing how police forces in the North evolved out of community watches and private, for-profit constable services, Potter moves south. As often happened, things went differently in the nation’s most distinctive region. As generally holds, they did so thanks to the needs of slavery:

In the Southern states the development of American policing followed a different path. The genesis of the modern police organization in the South is the “Slave Patrol” (Platt 1982). The first formal slave patrol was created in the Carolina colonies in 1704 (Reichel 1992). Slave patrols had three primary functions: (1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves; (2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and, (3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside of the law, if they violated any plantation rules. Following the Civil War, these vigilante-style organizations evolved in modern Southern police departments primarily as a means of controlling freed slaves who were now laborers working in an agricultural caste system, and enforcing “Jim Crow” segregation laws, designed to deny free slaves equal rights and access to the political system.

Police forces, North and South, further evolved not to fight crime, but rather to combat public disorder as perceived by local businessmen. In the South this meant as Potter says above. In the North, it meant breaking strikes called, for convenience, riots. In both cases it meant outsourcing the cost of protecting one’s business, and especially the exploitation inherent in it, to the public purse.

It would not do to stretch the connection too far. The slave and the factory worker both exist on the same spectrum of exploited labor, but that did not reduce a wage laborer to the slave’s state. If one wants to construct a scale of horrors to contain both, almost any slave would have things vastly worse than any white worker. No markets existed for the sale of white children. A factory owner might get away with raping a female employee, but the ability to do so did not come built into the value of her labor.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Returning to the quote, it brought to mind where William and Ellen Craft shared details of the Georgia slave code:

Any person who shall maliciously dismember or deprive a slave of life, shall suffer such punishment as would be inflicted in case the like offense had been committed on a free white person, and on the like proof, except in case of insurrection of such slave, and unless SUCH DEATH SHOULD HAPPEN BY ACCIDENT IN GIVING SUCH SLAVE MODERATE CORRECTION. [Emphasis in original.]


If any slave, who shall be out of the house or plantation where such slave shall live, or shall be usually employed, or without some white person in company with such slave, shall REFUSE TO SUBMIT to undergo the examination of ANY WHITE person, (let him ever be so drunk or crazy), it shall be lawful for such white person to pursue, apprehend, and moderately correct such slave; and if such slave shall assault and strike such a white person, such slave may be LAWFULLY KILLED.

The interaction between an unarmed black person and a white authority figure (any white back then, any policeman or other armed white person now) which ends with the black person dead and the white entirely above scrutiny remains among our traditions.

Whenever one of these incidents hits the news, one has no trouble at all finding white people absolutely certain that the white person acted entirely reasonably. Even so much as an investigation seems to ask too much to them. After all, the victim stood exactly as tall as the killer. He had an abusive father. He committed some petty crime which we do not punish with death. He did not comply quickly enough. Once or twice, one might write off to simple differences of opinion. When it happens all the time, I don’t know how one can dismiss the notion that white supremacy has done its work.

We don’t take pictures of lynchings and make them into postcards like we used to, but those white bystanders remind me strongly of the crowds in the background. They didn’t all take part in the killing directly, but each one had no problem standing by and watching. Each comfortably faced the camera, expressing their proud approval of the act. Each helped make the killing possible and ensure the guilty walked free. We don’t take those pictures anymore, but some of us still happily stand in the background. If the polls on the subject have it right, most of white America does.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

Having the good sense to choose our white skin, we have that privilege. Other people do not. We chose blackness for them and enforce the consequences of our choice. Would could be wrong with that? People killed? Mark Twain had the answer for that, in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck comes up with a lie about how he came on a steamboat, but the boat had some difficulties:

I didn’t rightly know what to say, because I didn’t know whether the boat would be coming up the river or down.  But I go a good deal on instinct; and my instinct said she would be coming up—from down towards Orleans. That didn’t help me much, though; for I didn’t know the names of bars down that way.  I see I’d got to invent a bar, or forget the name of the one we got aground on—or—Now I struck an idea, and fetched it out:

“It warn’t the grounding—that didn’t keep us back but a little.  We blowed out a cylinder-head.”

“Good gracious! anybody hurt?”

“No’m.  Killed a nigger.”

“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.

Nobody got hurt; not to Huck and not to Aunt Sally. Sometimes people do get hurt, but not that time. Sometimes the police do make mistakes, but neither in these incidents nor any others, when the victim had the wrong color picked out for him. Or so we tell ourselves. Whiteness brings the privilege of surprise a few times a year when one hits the news. We do not live with that reality, even if it takes place all around us. We let other people live with it and in so doing help ensure that some of them don’t.


The Agency of Black Americans

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Most of what goes on this blog relates to political history. My education and interests run strongest there. A political history naturally focuses on political actors. They typically include elected officials, influential newspaper men, public intellectuals, and other people of that sort. This omits the vast multitudes of humanity from the story as anything more than a sort of bit of the environment. To the degree that ordinary people enter the narrative, they generally do so as collective masses expressing their opinions through generalization. Of necessity, we tend to use public figures as their spokesmen.

All of that goes only so far. In nineteenth century America, the traditional field of political actors includes fairly exclusively white men. Women did not vote. Black men did not vote anywhere outside New England. Nowhere did any black person or any woman hold elected office. A few enter the story anyway through their conspicuous deeds, most famously Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman. To their number we could add other fugitive slaves and their sensational stories, people like Ellen and William Craft, Anthony Burns (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), Shadrach Minkins, and Thomas Sims.

One might hold, as E.B. Long does in the appendices to his The Civil War Day by Day, that the nation’s slave population amounted to “more-than-interested spectators, and occasionally participants.” I follow William W. Freehling in considering their acts and agency an often overlooked aspect of antebellum America. Slaves had no votes, but they voted with their feet all the same. Without runaways, one has no fugitives and thus no fugitive slaves to inflame the Border South and inspire resistance in the North. Slaves might have lacked conventional political character, but their actions had great political impact.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

The fear of fugitives and their abolitionist enablers establishing themselves in Kansas spurred men like David Rice Atchison, Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, and groups like their Platte County Self-Defense Association into action. The proslavery extremism that opened Kansas and the rest of the Louisiana Purchase to slavery via the Kansas-Nebraska Act in turn inflamed the North and inspired the founding of Emigrant Aid Societies. Those in turn convinced the slaveholders in western Missouri that they had a real menace on their hands which justified extreme action.

All of this loops back to black Americans seeking their freedom and white Americans bent on keeping them slaves. That struck very close to home for western Missouri’s slaveholders. Exposed, living amid both slaves and whites who sometimes openly questioned slavery and wished it gone, living in a state that had very recently had a senator who avowed that proslavery extremism threatened the Union, they had every reason to feel insecure even before antislavery Americans declared their intent to seize Kansas for freedom.

But at least one more slave had her own role to play in working Missouri’s slaveholders into a fever. An enslaved woman named Celia and her possible lover, George, murdered her owner and likely serial rapist. They then burned the body. That could have happened to any slaveholder. Who knew what really lurked behind the eyes of their human property? Worse still, while white Missourians caught and hanged Celia, George escaped the state. If the abolitionists took Kansas, they could only inspire more such acts. Four slaves ran from Platte County two days before the Platte County Self-Defense Association formed, further underlining their peril.

Much of antebellum history involves whites acting upon blacks. We can easily slip into viewing this as E.B. Long did, but it behooves us to remember that the protection and expansion of slavery came into the minds of slaveholders because their treasured institution required the suppression of black agency. Whites could and did do horrible things to slaves, but they did those things to keep their control over black lives. Every controversy over slavery amounted to that, ultimately. Black agency proved impossible to completely erase and so the next radical step had to come and come again or the whole edifice would crumble.

The Story of Shadrach Minkins

An advertisement for the auction that sold Shadrach to his penultimate owner.

An advertisement for the auction that sold Shadrach to his penultimate owner.

The Boston Vigilance Committee put the Crafts on a boat to England after expending great effort in hiding them from their would-be captors. The slave catchers went back to Georgia empty-handed, but the sensational ways that the Boston abolitionists flouted James Mason’s Fugitive Slave Law won them a great deal of national attention.

Millard Fillmore had promised the Crafts’ owner help in recovering them if he wanted a second try, but their departure for England put them beyond his reach. The same did not hold for Boston’s other fugitives.

John DeBree, a navy man, bought Shadrach Minkins in Virginia in 1849. He worked in DeBree’s house, but absconded on May 5, 1850. Like the Crafts, he made his way to Boston, probably by sea, and got a job there as a waiter at Taft’s Cornhill Coffee House, an upscale establishment not a block away from the courthouse.

DeBree’s slave catcher, John Caphart, arrived in Boston on February 12, 1851. Three days later, the legal niceties sorted and warrants issued, two men Shadrach waited on seized him from the coffee house and hurried him to the courthouse. They had to use the federal courthouse because Massachusetts law forbade the use of state facilities for slave catching.

The capture did not go unmarked. Shadrach did not put up a fight, but did make a scene. Boston’s white and black abolitionists got on the case in short order and more than a hundred packed into the courtroom for Shadrach’s preliminary hearing. Six lawyers volunteered to help in his defense and the court gave them three days to prepare. Shadrach and the lawyers stayed in the courtroom to confer, with the press and various other interested parties drifting in.

Outside the building an abolitionist mob gathered, hundreds strong. The lawyers had three days to defend Shadrach. The mob took three hours to do them one better. That afternoon, around twenty black men charged the doors and spirited a stunned Shadrach away. Boston’s abolitionists hid him in an attic, got him across the river to Cambridge, then to Concord, and finally along the Underground Railroad to Canada where he lived out the rest of his days in Montreal.

This may not sound like it differs much from the Crafts’ story. Shadrach escaped with the help of Bostonian abolitionists. But it did take things one step farther. The Crafts hid and the abolitionists harassed and threatened their pursuers. To save Shadrach, Bostonian abolitionists turned to violence. Black men used violence to save a fugitive slave from his pursuers. In the South, that had to look like a slave revolt played out in miniature. And the abolitionist press cheered it.

How could they rest easy, how could the white South have any confidence in the security of its laws, its slavery, and the lives of all its white people if the North would stand by and let black people overthrow white law by force? How long before abolitionists armed, trained, and dispatched legions of Nat Turners? How long before the slaves found out and learned they had white allies? The Unionist South nailed its colors to the Fugitive Slave Law and barely months after the law came into force, had this to show for it.

The Crafts (The Second Flight)

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Previous in this series: Some ContextWhite Children Sold into Slavery? Ellen’s Life in Bondage William’s Life in Bondage The Dismemberment of William’s Family Quoting the Slave Codes Reason to Flee The Perils of Flight The Plan Leaving and Literacy Last Minute Fears William’s Close Call Ellen’s close Call The Steamer Irony The Helpful Officer Some Humor The Lady Arrives The Lady’s Unkindness Sectionalism Antislavery Men on the Train Philadelphia Quakers and Boston Full text of the narrative.

Safe in Boston, the Crafts began a new life. They joined the church led by Theodore Parker, who also led the local fugitive slave protection operation. Their experiences made for a gripping narrative which the antislavery press widely disseminated. They had little reason to hide in Boston, home to two to three hundred fugitives just like them. They must have felt very safe, far from slavery, in a community hostile to it, and personally acquainted with white people sworn to protect them. Boston subscribed to Seward’s Higher Law against slavery and took from it authorization to break lower, mortal law.

Congress passed James Mason’s Fugitive Slave Act on September 18, 1850. By that time, the Crafts’ owners had word that the couple lived free in Boston. Armed with the new law, which required local law enforcement to arrest and deliver back to slavery any black person that an owner or an owner’s agent proclaimed a fugitive and which stripped from the accused any possible defense, their owners sent two men to take the Crafts back into bondage.

William Craft

William Craft

The slave catchers, Hughes and Knight, reached Boston on October 25. William and Ellen went to ground. My sources disagree on where they hid. Their narrative places William at his home and Ellen at “a retired place outside the city.” James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom puts William at the home of a free black abolitionist who kept kegs of gunpowder on his porch and an arsenal in the kitchen. Ellen hides in the home of Theodore Parker, who kept a gun on his desk. I would normally give credence to the Craft’s own narrative, but McPherson had the luxury of writing long after the Fugitive Slave Act ceased to have legal force. The Crafts wrote in 1860, when naming people who aided them so directly would have also repaid their kindness with heavy fines. Their careful vagueness, especially in an otherwise specific portion of the text, speaks volumes.

While William and Ellen hid, the Vigilance Committee kicked into overdrive. Recruiting new members, it spawned sub-committees devoted to opposing Hughes and Knight, and slave catchers to come, in various ways. One group called on them and suggested they ought to leave town. Others put up posters calling them “man-stealers”. Still others arranged for their arrest, repeatedly, on charges of conspiracy to kidnap and, amusingly, defamation for calling the Crafts slaves. Still others harassed them openly on the streets.

Theodore Parker, minister and head of the Vigilance Committee

Theodore Parker, minister and head of the Vigilance Committee

As the Crafts hid and the Vigilance Committee frustrated Hughes and Knight, another man tried to put an end to the affair through more legal means: he promised if they surrendered that he would buy their freedom. William refused, seeing himself as a test case. Should the Boston abolitionists set the precedent that fugitives remained slaves and their freedom required their purchase, what would happen to the other two or three hundred of them? Did the abolitionists have pockets that deep? And given slave catchers often worked in secret, they could spirit off fugitives before the abolitionists knew to start raising the cash. Beyond that, the notion that after two years of freedom and a harrowing flight before he and his wife could still have their fates chose to suit the finances of whites must have chafed.

After five days of harassment  short stays in jail, and assurances that Boston did not want them and would not ensure their safety, Hughes and Knight left. Their employers, the Crafts’ owners, did not so easily give up. They wrote to Millard Fillmore, who had signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law. Fillmore condemned the Boston abolitionists and promised to call out the military to take them back to slavery.

The Vigilance Committee could turn away two men. Could it turn away a hundred soldiers? If so, for how long? The prospect of hiding the Crafts from the army, and the consequences of failing to do so, must have daunted fugitives and abolitionists alike. Furthermore, the Fugitive Slave Act did not only warm the hearts of the Slave Power South. The Crafts spend most of a page quoting Northern clergymen supporting it, including a Bostonian minister who plainly declared preserving the Union worth more than a fugitive’s freedom. If the army came to Boston, surely it would find many eager to trade the Crafts and any other fugitives in exchange for its departure.

With the clock running out, the Crafts took ship to England with a letter of introduction in hand. There they remained until the war and the Thirteenth Amendment brought about slavery’s end.

The Crafts (Quakers and Boston)

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Previous in this series: Some ContextWhite Children Sold into Slavery? Ellen’s Life in Bondage William’s Life in Bondage The Dismemberment of William’s Family Quoting the Slave Codes Reason to Flee The Perils of Flight The Plan Leaving and Literacy Last Minute Fears William’s Close Call Ellen’s close Call The Steamer Irony The Helpful Officer Some Humor The Lady Arrives The Lady’s Unkindness Sectionalism Antislavery Men on the Train Philadelphia Full text of the narrative.

At last, the Crafts reached Philadelphia. Warned that they could not safely remain so close to slavery, even with Philadelphia’s abolitionist community to help them, they took the abolitionists’ advice and opted to start their new lives in Boston. After stressful, sleepless days and nights aboard train, steamer, ferry, and train again they must have wanted a rest before making another lengthy voyage. They went up to the farm of a Quaker family, the Ivens.

Ellen mistook the farmer, Barkley Ivens, for a mixed-race person like herself as he had relatively dark skin for a white man. On learning otherwise the old fears came back. No white person had ever shown her or William any kindness not complicated by their personal benefit or the distortions of slavery. She refused to go into the Ivens home:

“it is not all right, and I am not going to stop here; I have no confidence whatever in white people, they are only trying to get us back to slavery.” She turned round and said, “I am going right off.”

Ellen, remember, had kind words for her last owner and had never been particularly mistreated. But slavery corrupted even the most benign interactions. One could enjoy the company of an owner, share laughter and memories, and then get beaten or sold the next day. With that always hanging over you, any genuine affection had to come with numerous qualifiers. Liking a white person did not mean slaves could forget the power whites had over them. The hard lessons of such a life do not vanish overnight.

But Ivens’ wife came out and persuaded Ellen to come in and over some tea and conversation, where she said that she would as soon send her own daughters off into slavery as betray Ellen, some of the fears receded. The Ivens employed two black people on the farm and their presence further soothed Ellen’s nerves.

The Crafts spent three weeks on the Ivens’ farm, where they learned to spell and write their names. The Ivens’ asked them to stay longer, but the Crafts wanted to put more distance between themselves and slavery. A farm simply did not provide the kind of security that a full abolitionist community, especially the Bostonian abolitionist community, could and they wanted to begin their own lives rather than living, however welcome, as refugees:

We finally, as I have stated, settled at Boston, where we remained nearly two years, I employed as cabinet-maker and furniture broker, and my wife at her needle; and, as our little earnings in slavery were not all spent on the journey, we were getting on very well, and would have made money, if we had not been compelled by the General Government, at the bidding of the slaveholders, to break up business, and fly from under the Stars and Stripes to save our liberties and our lives.

And so we come back to where we began with the Crafts: James Mason’s Fugitive Slave Act. The South, even the Unionist South, demanded that law be vigorously enforced in the North. If not, they would reopen the four years of sectional strife that preceded the Armistice of 1850 and those Unionists would at the least seriously consider joining the fire-eaters that wanted to break the Union in late 1850 and 1851.

The Crafts (Philadelphia)

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Previous in this series: Some ContextWhite Children Sold into Slavery? Ellen’s Life in Bondage William’s Life in Bondage The Dismemberment of William’s Family Quoting the Slave Codes Reason to Flee The Perils of Flight The Plan Leaving and Literacy Last Minute Fears William’s Close Call Ellen’s close Call The Steamer Irony The Helpful Officer Some Humor The Lady Arrives The Lady’s Unkindness Sectionalism Antislavery Men on the Train Full text of the narrative.

Finally, the train arrived in Philadelphia:

The sight of those lights and that announcement made me feel almost as happy as Bunyan’s Christian must have felt when he first caught sight of the cross. I, like him, felt the straps that bound the heavy burden to my back begin to pop, and the load to roll off. I also looked, and looked again, for it appeared very wonderful to me how the mere sight of our first city of refuge should have all at once made my hitherto sad and heavy heart become so light and happy. As the train speeded on, I rejoiced and thanked God with all my heart and soul for his great kindness and tender mercy, in watching over us, and bringing us safely through.

As soon as the train had reached the platform, before it had fairly stopped, I hurried out of my carriage to my master, whom I got at once into a cab, placed the luggage on, jumped in myself, and we drove off to the boarding house which was so kindly recommended to me. On leaving the state, my master–or rather my wife, as I may now say–who had from the commencement of the journey bore up in a manner that much surprised us both, grasped me by the hand, and said, “Thank God, William, we are safe!” and then burst into tears, leant upon me, and wept like a child. The reaction was fearful, So when we reached the house, she was in reality so weak and faint that she could scarcely stand alone. However, I got her into the apartments that were pointed out, and there we knelt down, on this Sabbath, and Christmas day–a day that will ever be memorable to us,–and poured out our heartfelt gratitude to God, for his goodness in enabling us to overcome so many perilous difficulties, in escaping out of the jaws of the wicked.

The Crafts took a room as master and slave, but once ensconced Ellen took off her disguise and dressed in her normal clothes. They quite surprised the landlord, who refused to believe “Mr. Johnson” stood before him in a dress with her husband. But they satisfied him and asked if they could remain safely in Philadelphia. So close to slavery, he thought not but went out to bring a few of the city’s abolitionists to make the Crafts welcome and give them more informed advice.

The Philadelphia abolitionists recommended against Canada in December, suggesting Boston in its place. The Constitution might grant slaveholders the right to reclaim their fled property, but the Bostonian abolitionists made that task virtually impossible. The Crafts did not go at once, but instead met a Quaker through the offices of a wealthy free black man and went up to his farm to recover from their journey.

The Crafts (Antislavery Men on the Train)

William Craft

William Craft

Previous in this series: Some ContextWhite Children Sold into Slavery? Ellen’s Life in Bondage William’s Life in Bondage The Dismemberment of William’s Family Quoting the Slave Codes Reason to Flee The Perils of Flight The Plan Leaving and Literacy Last Minute Fears William’s Close Call Ellen’s close Call The Steamer Irony The Helpful Officer Some Humor The Lady Arrives The Lady’s Unkindness Sectionalism Full text of the narrative.

The Crafts passed Baltimore. Nothing but miles of empty train track stood between them and freedom. William had barely slept the entire trip and so decided to finally get some rest. Days of stress and sleep deprivation took their toll and what he planned as a nap stretched on far longer.

While William slept, the train reached the Susquehanna. The first class passengers, Ellen among them, disembarked to board a ferry. At all previous stops, Ellen left the train to find William waiting for her. His attentiveness had earned William praise from various slaveholders on the journey. This time

my master was asked to leave his seat, he found it very dark, and cold, and raining. He missed me for the first time on the journey. […] my absence filled him with terror and confusion; the children of Israel could not have felt more troubled on arriving at the Red Sea. So he asked the conductor if he had seen anything of his slave.

Apparently the conductor had a sense of humor and some antislavery leanings. He said William had certainly run away and would soon be free in Philadelphia. But would he look?

The man indignantly replied, “I am no slave-hunter; and as far as I am concerned everybody must look after their own niggers.”

In his line of work, the conductor probably had much more frequent occasion to decide slavery’s worth and his relationship to the peculiar institution than most Northerners. The law, in 1848, did not obligate them to help catch runaways. After James Mason’s Fugitive Slave Act passed, it drafted them all to just that task. But Ellen did not have the luxury of appreciating the conductor’s antislavery politics.

My master at first thought I must have been kidnapped into slavery by some one, or left, perhaps killed on the train. He also thought of stopping to see if he could hear anything of me, but he soon remembered that he had no money. That night all the money we had was consigned to my own pocket, because we thought, in case there were any pickpockets about, a slave’s pocket would be the last one they would look for. However, hoping to meet me some day in a land of liberty, and as he had the tickets, he thought it best upon the whole to enter the boat and come off to Philadelphia, and endeavor to make his way alone in this cold and hollow world as best he could.

William rode across the Susquehanna in the baggage car. A guard shook him away some time later and told him that Ellen had missed him. They reunited to her relief.

On returning to my seat, I found the conductor and two or three other persons amusing themselves very much respecting my running away. So the guard said, “Boy, what did your master want?” I replied, “He merely wished to know what had become of me.” “No,” said the man, “that was not it; he thought you had taken French leave, for parts unknown. I never saw a fellow so badly scared about losing his slave in my life. Now,” continued the guard, “let me give you a little friendly advice. When you get to Philadelphia, run away and leave that cripple, and have your liberty.” “No, sir,” I indifferently replied, “I can’t promise to do that.” […] “I shall never run away from such a good master as I have at present.”

One of the other men told the conductor to leave William be, but before they did they gave him helpful advice about Philadelphia. He also met a free black man on the train who recommended a boarding house that would shelter William.

The Crafts (Sectionalism)

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Previous in this series: Some ContextWhite Children Sold into Slavery? Ellen’s Life in Bondage William’s Life in Bondage The Dismemberment of William’s Family Quoting the Slave Codes Reason to Flee The Perils of Flight The Plan Leaving and Literacy Last Minute Fears William’s Close Call Ellen’s close Call The Steamer Irony The Helpful Officer Some Humor The Lady Arrives The Lady’s Unkindness Full text of the narrative.

The lady relieved Ellen of her company shortly after delivering her position on emancipation. The Crafts passed through Washington and reached Baltimore on Christmas Eve, 1848. The last major slave port they needed to pass, Baltimore engendered special fears. So close to free Pennsylvania, the city had good reason to stay on constant alert for runaways. Sure enough, a Northerner challenged William just after he saw Ellen into her train car. Where was he going? Philadelphia. What for? William was with his master.

The Northerner demanded to see William’s master. The rules forbade permitting anyone to take a slave on the train unless they could prove ownership. Not having much choice, William went to fetch Ellen. He found her relieved and smiling. They came so far and would arrive on free soil at five the next morning.

I then said we were not getting on quite so well as we had anticipated. He anxiously and quickly asked what was the matter. I told him. He started as if struck by lightning, and exclaimed, “Good Heavens, William, is it possible that we are, after all, doomed to hopeless bondage?”

William did not trust his voice to answer at first, but finally he and Ellen went out to meet the Northerner. They received the expected explanation: One could not take a slave on the train to Philadelphia without proof of ownership because otherwise someone could steal a slave away from his or her true owner and leave the railroad liable for the slave’s value. The Crafts faced a similar challenge boarding their steamer, but this time no military officer came by to vouch for them.

The conversation drew onlookers who did not take kindly to a Yankee harassing an invalid Southern gentleman. Feeling their stares, he asked if they didn’t know anybody in Baltimore who could vouch for them.

“I bought the tickets in Charleston to pass through to Philadelphia, and therefore you have no right to detain us here.” “Well sir, said the man, indignantly, “right or no right, we shan’t let you go.” These sharp words fell upon our anxious hearts like the crack of doom, and made us feel that hope only smiles to deceive.

For a few moments perfect silence prevailed. My master looked at me, and I at him, but neither of us dared to speak a word, for fear of making some blunder that would tend to our detection. We knew that the officers had power to throw us into prison, and if they had done so we must have been detected and driven back, like the vilest felons, to a life of slavery, which we dreaded far more than sudden death.

The train’s conductor arrived and confirmed that the Crafts came on his train from Washington and then departed. The bell rang, meaning the train had to go as well. With the crowd against him, the Northerner yielded and the Crafts rushed back on board, William making it just as the train began to move.

Southern pride, that ever-growing target that restrictions on slavery once thought part of a sacred bipartisan, bi-sectional consensus so often struck in the late antebellum years unwittingly came to the rescue of a pair of runaway slaves.

The Crafts (The Lady’s Unkindness)

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Previous in this series: Some ContextWhite Children Sold into Slavery? Ellen’s Life in Bondage William’s Life in Bondage The Dismemberment of William’s Family Quoting the Slave Codes Reason to Flee The Perils of Flight The Plan Leaving and Literacy Last Minute Fears William’s Close Call Ellen’s close Call The Steamer Irony The Helpful Officer Some Humor The Lady Arrives Full text of the narrative.

The stout, older lady narrated one of Ellen’s nightmares. She told the story of how when one of her slaves ran off, she sold that man’s wife and the mother of his child down to New Orleans. She kept the child.  Overwrought, she dabbed her eyes while telling the story. The young gentleman sharing the compartment with Ellen and the lady asked if she ever thought to emancipate such a faithful slave instead of selling her away?

“No, indeed I do not!” scornfully exclaimed the lady, as she impatiently crammed the fine handkerchief into a little work-bag. “I have no patience with people who set niggers at liberty. It is the very worst thing you can do for them. My dear husband just before he died willed all his niggers free. But I and all our friends knew very well that he was too good a man to have ever thought of doing such an unkind and foolish thing, had he been in his right mind, and, therefore we had the will altered as it should have been in the first place.”

The worst one could do is free a black person? Worse than whipping and rape? Worse than selling them away from their family? The passenger pressed her: did she mean unkind to her and her children or unkind to the slaves?

“I mean that it was decidedly unkind to the servants themselves. It always seem to be such a cruel thing to turn niggers loose to shift for themselves, when there are so many good masters to take care of them. As for myself,” continued the considerate lady, “I think the Lord my dear husband left me and my son well provided for. Therefore I care nothing for the niggers, on my own account, for they are a great deal more trouble than they are worth, I sometimes wish that there was not one of them in the world; for the ungrateful wretches are always running away. I have lost no less than ten since my poor husband died. It’s ruinous, sir!”

Her story did not quite add up. If she had plenty, how did the runaways ruin her? And why did they vex her so? The lady cared, of course, about their value as property. Runaway slaves took money out of her pocket. She could have used that money to fund mission work. In fact, she boarded the train after making arrangements to do just that before moving North to live with her son in New York.

But why not free them and let the slaves go North? The lady insisted that the slaves had it better than any white person in the world who had to labor. Lincoln, some time later, noted that those who maintained had easier, better lives as slaves than free whites did never seemed interested in trying to improve their own lot through taking up bondage. If “her” Ned benefitted so much, why did he run?

Not so, the passenger said. His mother freed all her slaves and set them up in Ohio. They did quite well and he had visited them himself the previous summer. While history naturally focuses more on slavery diehards, and without his name we can’t know what the young man did when war came, some slaveholders did just that. Many had their wills overturned in the courts just as the lady had her husband’s.

But the passenger offered the lady a polite gesture, conceding that maybe she had a different sort of slave. Ned and the others would realize their mistake and come home to her.

“Blast them!” explained the old lady, with great emphasis, “if I ever get them, I will cook their infernal hash, and tan their accursed black hides well for them! God forgive me,” added the old soul, “the niggers will make me lose all my religion!”

I can’t imagine why they would stay away.

The Crafts (The Lady Arrives)

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

New readers who found this blog through The Lighter Side of Life, welcome and apologies. I offer the latter because most of this blog’s content doesn’t evoke many laughs. I’m working my way through Running a Thousand Miles to Freedom, a narrative of William and Ellen Craft’s escape from slavery in 1848. I also apologize to all readers for the period racial slurs.

Previous in this series: Some ContextWhite Children Sold into Slavery? Ellen’s Life in Bondage William’s Life in Bondage The Dismemberment of William’s Family Quoting the Slave Codes Reason to Flee The Perils of Flight The Plan Leaving and Literacy Last Minute Fears William’s Close Call Ellen’s close Call The Steamer Irony The Helpful Officer Some Humor Full text of the narrative.

The departure of the friendly gentleman and his smitten daughters at Richmond made plenty of room for a stout, older woman. Seeing William passing on the platform, she mistook him for a slave of her own that ran away eighteen months prior. Ellen tried to dissuade her, but the lady would hear nothing of it, yelling out the window for William to come to her. Only when she got a clear look at William did she give it up:

“I beg your pardon, sir. I was sure it was my nigger; I never in my life saw two black pigs more alike than your boy and my Ned.”


“Oh! I hope, sir, your boy will not turn out to be so worthless as my Ned has. Oh! I was as kind to him as if he had been my own son. Oh! sir, it grieves me very much to think that after all I did for him he should go off without having any cause whatever.”

A man in the compartment asked if Ned had a wife.

“No, sir; not when he left, though he did have one a little before that. She was very unlike him; she was as good and faithful a nigger as any one need wish to have. But, poor thing! she became so ill, that she was unable to do much work; so I thought it would be best to sell her, to go to New Orleans, where the climate is nice and warm.”

Ned’s wife did not want to go

“for niggers never know what is best for them. She took on a great deal about leaving Ned and the little nigger; but, as she was so weakly, I let her go.”

By let go she means made go and made go without her child and without her husband to a strange, unfamiliar place and a deeply uncertain future. Going South, whether literally down the river, by rail, by ship, or by foot rarely improved a slave’s condition. They might, of course, find a kind owner who did not mistreat them. Living at a more southerly latitude hardly requires greater cruelty than living at a northerly latitude.  But in general life in the black belt cotton state took a far greater toll on slaves than life on a tobacco, hemp, or mixed-crop plantation in the Upper South.

I can only imagine what went through the Crafts’ minds when she accosted William and then went on narrating their nightmares. Maybe years of such talk made them numb to it or their focus on flight took some of the sting from her words.  Maybe the stress of their journey and fear of capture drowned out any additional fears. Certainly both Crafts had to have learned incredible self-control. How many of us could keep a poker face under that strain?

And the lady had yet to finish with them.