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date: 25 October 2021

Craft, Williamfree

(c. 1825–1900)

Craft, Williamfree

(c. 1825–1900)
  • Jerome Farrell

Craft, William (c. 1825–1900), slavery abolitionist, was born into slavery in Georgia, and apprenticed as a carpenter in Macon. His family was broken up when his parents, brother, and sister were sold separately to pay off their master's debts. At the age of sixteen William was mortgaged to the local bank to raise capital to speculate in the cotton boom, and was later sold to the bank cashier to meet his master's mortgage payments. His new master, Ira H. Taylor, sent him back to the cabinet shop where he had been apprenticed. He married another slave, Ellen Craft, née Smith (1825/6–1891), about 1847, and in December 1848 the two made a daring escape to the north.

The Crafts spent about eighteen months in Boston, where William worked as a cabinet-maker. In September 1850 the Fugitive Slave Bill threatened their freedom, and two agents of their Georgia masters arrived in Boston intent on recapturing the couple, who were ‘legally’ married on 7 November 1850 and had their first child in 1852. The Crafts had by then established themselves as leading members of Boston's black community, William having given an anti-slavery lecture tour with another fugitive slave, William Wells Brown, in January 1849; the community rallied to their defence, and the agents were forced to leave without them. The Crafts left Boston late in 1850 and, like other American fugitive slaves, sought refuge in England.

In Britain the Crafts participated with William Wells Brown in immensely popular lecture tours on the evils of slavery, travelling widely throughout Scotland and the north and west of England. They then spent three years at an agricultural school in Ockham, Surrey, supported financially by Lady Byron and others, which was to be the model for the schools that Craft later founded in Dahomey and Georgia.

After leaving Ockham, Craft returned to lecturing, continuing to denounce slavery and also promoting the boycott of slave-grown produce. In May 1859 the London Emancipation Committee, which aimed to influence British opinion against American slavery, was formed; the Crafts were both executive committee members. They published the story of their escape in Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom in 1860. Craft afterwards turned his attention to Africa, and in 1862 visited Dahomey (Benin) in the hope of persuading the king to abandon human sacrifices, cease participating in the slave trade, and encourage the cultivation of cotton. Craft's first short visit to Dahomey was followed in 1863 by a three-year stay, during which he opened a school at Ouidah and acted as an agent for the Company of African Merchants.

After William's return to London, in 1867 the Crafts concentrated on raising money for their planned return to Georgia, where they hoped to run a co-operative plantation which would allow freed slaves to escape contract labour. Leaving England in 1869 they lived in Boston briefly before returning south, first to Hickory Hill, South Carolina, then to Woodville, an 1800 acre plantation at Ways Station in Bryan county, Georgia. Their egalitarian farming methods met with resistance from neighbouring planters and Craft was also accused of mismanaging funds collected for the Woodville Co-operative Farm School which he had opened for seventy-five boys and girls to attend free of charge. Severe financial problems dogged the latter years of his life. Craft died on 28 January 1900 at the Charleston house of his daughter Ellen and her husband Dr William Demos Crum, and was buried in the Humane Friendly burial-ground in that city.

The return of the Crafts to America after the civil war to work with freed slaves showed courage and a commitment to improving the lot of Georgia's black population. Craft's activities in Dahomey may also have contributed to ending the slave trade there. The couple's famous escape from slavery and their many public lectures undoubtedly did much to further the abolitionist cause in both Britain and America.

Sources

  • W. Craft, Running a thousand miles for freedom, or, The escape of William and Ellen Craft from slavery (1860)
  • R. J. M. Blackett, ‘The odyssey of William and Ellen Craft’, Beating against the barriers: biographical essays in nineteenth-century Afro-American history (1986)
  • K. Coleman and C. S. Gurr, eds., Dictionary of Georgia biography, 2 vols. (Athens, GA, 1983)
  • Savannah Tribune (17 Feb 1900) [quotes obit. in Charleston enquirer]
  • West London Observer (13 Feb 1858)
  • West London Observer (18 Dec 1858)
  • Aberdeen Journal (12 Feb 1851)
  • British Friend, 28 (1870), 92–3

Archives

  • Hammersmith and Fulham Archives and Local History Centre, London, Charles Chapman collection

Likenesses

  • engravings, repro. in Blackett, ‘The odyssey of William and Ellen Craft’, 86, 111

Wealth at Death

minimal; almost bankrupt

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