Early on a December morning in 1848 in Macon, Georgia, a wealthy, white young man quietly asked for passage for himself and his enslaved man to Philadelphia. Small and sickly, the man, who called himself Mr. Johnson, was wrapped in poultices, his arm in a sling. He would need his enslaved man William to help him navigate the arduous 1,000-mile journey requiring trains, steamboats, omnibuses, riverboats and ferries. Along the way they would pass through notorious slave ports in Charleston and Baltimore, travel close to a slave torture chamber known as “The Sugar House,” and mingle with slave traders.
As they made their way north, fellow travelers regarded Mr. Johnson with sympathy and curiosity, but the sickly young man shrank from the pitying stares and solicitous questions. Any attention, however kindly meant, was abhorrent, as Mr. Johnson was concealing a desperate secret: he wasn’t sick, he wasn’t wealthy, he wasn’t white and he wasn’t a man. “He” was actually Ellen Craft, a light-skinned enslaved seamstress fleeing north with her enslaved husband, William.
William and Ellen’s daring journey to freedom is at the heart of Ilyon Woo’s Master Slave Husband Wife but their astonishing story of self-emancipation is only one part of Woo’s rich portrait of antebellum America. Abolitionists and politicians, Northerners and Southerners, Free Staters and slaveholders, fought with words, writings, and acts of violence over questions of slavery and fugitives. As celebrated fugitives who dared challenge assumptions about race and gender, the Crafts were inevitably at the center of the storm.
Both as a nail-biting escape story and as a compellingly detailed exploration of a tumultuous period in American history, Master Slave Husband Wife is a rewarding historical narrative.