Celebrating Ellen Craft: American Abolitionist who Escaped Slavery in 1848

In Conservation, Digitization, News

Author Ilyon Woo’s Research in the Boston Public Library’s Special Collections 

In the heart of the Boston Public Library, amidst the treasures of its Special Collections, lies a remarkable illustration that captures more than just the image of a person—it encapsulates a story of extraordinary courage, intelligence, and resilience. The engraving of Ellen Craft, based on a daguerreotype, offers a tangible connection to a pivotal moment in American history.  

Ellen Craft's journey from slavery to freedom, alongside her husband William Craft, is a testament to the indomitable human spirit. Born into the brutal reality of enslavement in Macon, Georgia, Ellen, a seamstress, and her husband, William, a skilled cabinetmaker, devised an ingenious plan to escape their chains. Disguising Ellen as a wealthy white man and William as her enslaved servant, they embarked on a perilous journey to freedom. 

This daring escape, meticulously detailed in Ilyon Woo's new book Master Slave Husband Wife, underscores not just the Crafts' personal triumph but also the broader struggle for freedom and dignity faced by countless enslaved individuals. The illustration of Ellen Craft in the BPL's Special Collections serves as a poignant reminder of this struggle, embodying the resilience and bravery required to challenge the oppressive institution of slavery. 

Over the last decade, the Associates of the Boston Public Library underwrote work to catalog, digitize, and transcribe thousands of handwritten letters from leading abolitionists. Ilyon drew heavily on this collection and spent countless hours researching her book in the BPL’s Special Collections. The Associates is committed to making these vital historical records available to authors like Ilyon, scholars, students, and anyone interested in history to ensure that stories like the Crafts' are not only preserved but also celebrated. By supporting the conservation of such historical items, we aim to inspire current and future generations to explore the depths of our shared history, to understand the complexities of our past, and to recognize the contributions of those who fought for freedom and equality against overwhelming odds. 

Read the full article by CBS here: "Master Slave Husband Wife": A startling tale of disguise to escape slavery. The accompanying footage shows the BPL’s Conservation Lab and highlights materials from the Library’s Anti-Slavery Collection used in Ilyon’s research.