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'Master Slave Husband Wife' details a couple's journey from slavery to freedom


We have the story of a divided nation - not divided as we know now, but divided between states that banned slavery and states that embraced it. In 1848, in the slave state of Georgia, a husband and wife decided to escape. It was 800 miles to Philadelphia in the free state of Pennsylvania, but Ellen and William Craft made a plan to travel by train and boat in disguise. The writer Ilyon Woo reconstructs their escape in her new book, "Master Slave Husband Wife."

ILYON WOO: Ellen was the daughter of her first enslaver. And from him, she had inherited a very light complexion, so she's actually the one who disguises herself as a master. She dons the outfit of a wealthy white male enslaver who is disabled and thus is all the more dependent on the services of her slave. And that role of the slave is performed by her husband, William.

INSKEEP: What was the disguise?

WOO: All the accoutrements of gentlemanhood in this period - she has a double-story hat, as they call it. She has a man's shirt. She's made her own pants because she's very small, and she has a vest and a jacket. And then she has glasses that hide her eyes. And she has poultices that she wears on her face. I picture, like, an ACE bandage kind of thing that she's wrapped around. So it's hiding both the lack of hair on her face that would give her away. And it's also hiding her feeling, especially with the eyes covered up as well.

INSKEEP: Because she would be terrified all the time.

WOO: It must have been terrifying. They thought they could be captured at any time, but there were certain crises moments that really brought this out. And she gradually learns throughout the journey how to harness that fear and how to be the master that people want to see on the road.

INSKEEP: You put a map in the book here, which I'm looking at, and it's got a line showing their escape route. And it's basically all the states of the entire Eastern Seaboard from Georgia northward. What was America like at that moment in 1848?

WOO: It was an incredibly tumultuous time, as you know from your own research. There are all these revolutions going on. I mean, even beyond America, there are democratic revolts going on all over the world in Europe, and America is celebrating that. And America's borders are expanding with the end of that Mexican-American war. There's a transportation revolution going on with trains and steamboats and people moving at pieces they couldn't have even imagined before. And with it there is an information revolution. News is traveling incredibly fast. I mean, in some ways it's very much like our era, where everything feels like it's changing so rapidly. And this is the world in which the Crafts seize upon their own freedom.

INSKEEP: What was the most terrifying moment of their escape?

WOO: I think I might even point to the very beginning, as soon as they get to the train station. They're in the train. William has found his place in the - what's called a Negro car. Ellen has bought the tickets. They look outside, and there's a cabinetmaker from the shop where William works. And they learn later that he's had this strange intuition that something is off. And he comes, and he actually checks the cars of the train, and their hearts are beating, and they don't know what's going to happen. And then when they think that's over, Ellen looks to her side, and sitting there right next to her is a man who she served the night before, a close friend of her enslavers. I mean, it just - it couldn't have been a more terrifying start.

INSKEEP: This is a movie, isn't it?

WOO: It's very cinematic. That's - I actually thought about - whenever I got stuck in trying to figure out how to tell this story, I sort of tried to picture, where would the camera move, and which camera people am I going to use in terms of the angles that I'll get into the story?

INSKEEP: I want to note one other thing about their story that you tell, and that is that after the end of slavery, after the end of the Civil War, they chose to return to the South, to South Carolina and then to Georgia. Why did they do that?

WOO: This is their continued journey as people who are challenging not only themselves and their community but the nation to rise up. And what they do is they draw on their own experiences having attended an agricultural and educational cooperative in England, and that's some place where they might have just stayed happily ever after for good. They could have settled there and been safe. But instead, as soon as they are free by the nation's laws, they are starting to make other plans, and they come back to America - not to Boston again, where they might have had a much more comfortable life, but they go back to Georgia, and they start this school. And there's an incredible testimony by this over-a-100-year-old woman who had been enslaved on the grounds where they opened their school. And she is remarking on just the unbelievable transformation and opportunity that she has on the same grounds where she experienced so much pain.

INSKEEP: What does this story mean to you now in 2023?

WOO: You know, we are living in such divided times, and people say again and again, you have to look back to the years before the Civil War to see America so divided. And for me personally, having worked on this story over the last many years, I've been continually inspired by each of the choices the Crafts make. It starts, of course, with their journey and pursuing their own freedom. The way in which they continually challenge themselves - for me, that's been an ongoing inspiration.

INSKEEP: Can I ask one more question that's just occurring to me as I'm sitting here? We are talking in a moment when there's a lot of debate about how to teach slavery in schools. And one line of thinking is that teaching slavery in schools is going to make white kids feel bad. Should white people feel bad about this story you tell?

WOO: I hope this story will be inspirational for people of all ages and all colors, all backgrounds. I mean, this is an American story, America reaching for better, Americans reaching for better. And I would have to say, too, I've been thinking a lot about this with the Martin Luther King Day, and my own journey with the story I feel like in many ways began with my own childhood educational experiences at a school named for the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And the way the history was taught to me at that time - because I did learn a lot about slavery. I did learn a lot about what is - might now be called Black history, but which was just presented to me as history alongside so many other histories. I was exposed to so many different American histories and international histories. And it felt to me like all of these things can and did coexist at once. I think the Crafts show us what the true meaning of American freedom can be.

INSKEEP: Ilyon Woo is the author of "Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey From Slavery To Freedom." Thanks so much.

WOO: Thank you so very much for having me. It's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.