Opinion: Unknown heroes of the anti-slavery movement


Published: 09-25-2023 6:00 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

There are periods in American history that don’t get much attention. One such period is the 1840s-1850s. Although it is not remembered now, there was an ongoing battle before the Civil War about the matter of fugitive slaves.

Enslaved Black people risked their lives to flee their masters in the South. Slave catchers pursued the slaves on the run across all state lines. Back then, fugitive slave laws were not on the side of the slaves.

The framers of the Constitution included a fugitive slave clause in the document in Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3. However, the framers tactfully and hypocritically left the word “slave” out of the Constitution. They wanted to avoid unsightly appearances. Also, the South might not have joined the United States without the provision.

From the Southern perspective, law-abiding citizens were obligated to return runaway slaves who were living in whatever state. Enforcement of the clause was erratic and was left to the states. The federal government was too weak to intervene. Congress did pass a law in 1793, signed by President George Washington, designed to reinforce the rendition of fugitive slaves but it proved to be ineffective.

Some northern states passed “personal liberty” laws that created barriers to enforcement. They were not going along with any fugitive slave law. The historian Andrew Delbanco in his book “The War Before the War” has written that most runaways never made it out of the South. He explained that “chronic offenders were sometimes mutilated - tendons cut, faces branded - as warnings not to try again and to others not to try at all.”

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In 1850, Congress weighed in with a compromise that sold out fugitive slaves. The United States was massively expanding west and questions arose about whether the westward expanse would include slavery. The North and South were deeply divided about slavery, fugitive slaves, and whether slavery should be allowed to expand.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a gift to white supremacy and made a mockery of the judicial process. It denied habeas corpus, the right to challenge the legality of detention. Defendants were not allowed to testify in their own defense and jury trials were not allowed. The enslaved were not allowed to present exonerating evidence including evidence of beatings or rape.

If it was shown that the defendants belonged to a slave owner according to the state fled, they were ordered back to slavery. Free Black people were also terrified of the act as they feared removal on the false pretext that they had belonged to a slave owner. The book and movie, “Twelve Years a Slave,” tells such a story where even free Black people could be wrongfully shanghaied into servitude.

Stories about audacious slave escapes captivated 19th-century America before the Civil War. There were anti-slavery speaking tours through the northern states by ex-slaves who had fled the South or border states. They acted as consciousness-raising events for the abolitionist movement and tremendously propelled the anti-slavery cause.

In her wonderful book “Master Slave Husband Wife,” the writer Ilyon Woo tells some of these escape-to-freedom stories that deserve to be far better known. Her story about two Georgia slaves, William and Ellen Craft, who escaped slavery in 1848 is a centerpiece of her book but the book presents a much broader panorama of lesser-known leaders in the anti-slavery struggle.

Many of the names are unknown but they were famous long ago. Why some stories survive and others disappear is a good question and a mystery. The Crafts’ escape from slavery was highly inventive, carefully planned, and brilliantly executed. Most slave escapes were from border states like Maryland, Virginia or Kentucky. Among the unusual things about the Crafts is that they had a 1,000-mile journey north to Philadelphia from Georgia. They had to take trains and a steamboat. Their escape held the long distance record.

Being light-skinned, Ellen disguised herself as a high-class wealthy white man with a disability. Her husband William pretended to be her slave. As slaves, Ellen and William needed written passes just to move anywhere. Because they planned the escape around Christmas they were both able to get their owners to go along with a pass. This allowed them a short window to get away before their owners realized their absence. They faced some scary and unexpected contingencies on the trip.

Once they made it north to Pennsylvania, the Crafts connected with William Wells Brown, a leading light of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. He also had escaped slavery and was noted to be a superb storyteller. They joined forces and spoke publicly together. Abolitionist newspapers like William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator carried word about the Crafts’ escape.

The Crafts and Brown spoke in Boston at Faneuil Hall and electrified the audience. They proved to be a powerful draw. They toured the North but by no means were they out of danger. Slave catchers were on their trail. They had close calls and decided they had to leave America. First sailing to Canada, they eventually made their way to England. Again they connected with William Wells Brown who also had moved to England and they continued their public speaking.

Along with Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown stood out for his brilliance. He published his life story which repeatedly sold out publication. He spoke passionately to audiences of thousands.

The Crafts were ultimately able to meet the goals they had set. Besides freedom, they achieved literacy and they were able to have a family of their own, something they had been afraid to do in America. Ellen was able to see her mother again after the Civil War. The Crafts wrote a book in 1860, “Running A Thousand Miles for Freedom.” The book never sold that well, probably because it was overshadowed by the Civil War.

Woo also tells the story of Henry “Box” Brown. He was called “Box” because he made his way to freedom after being mailed north in a box. He spent 27 hours in that box which was three feet long, two feet wide, and two and a half feet high. He also made it to Philadelphia. “Box” Brown joined William Wells Brown, the Crafts, and Douglass in speaking out against slavery.

We are now 175 years since the Crafts’ escape. Too many Americans want to ban any truthful telling of Black history. The narrative of American history should include these heroes who inspired hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people.