Ilyon Woo, author of "Master Slave Husband Wife," to speak at Ruth Keeler Memorial Library
Ellen Craft was a slave in Macon, Georgia in the 1800s who dared to forge a path to freedom through determination, deception, and a daring escape. “The more I got to know her, the more I did see her as a very decisive activist who made really brilliant choices every step of the way in her storytelling,” said author Ilyon Woo, who chronicles Ellen and her husband William’s inspiring and phenomenal journey in the New York Times best-selling “Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom.”
“This is a book about America and a couple who are American heroes. You see the specificity of their story, their trials, and their triumphs against a larger picture of what’s going on in the nation,” said Woo. Her book details the Craft’s harrowing escape that led to them becoming partners in storytelling on the abolition circuit and traveling to the United Kingdom, writing the story of their life after learning to read and write, and returning to the U.S. after the Civil War to establish an education and farming cooperative. “Until the end of their days, they were continually making these brave, heroic choices which is really why they deserve to be known as American heroes.”
In “Master Slave Husband Wife” Woo indelibly captures Craft, the daughter of an enslaved woman who had been impregnated by her white enslaver and became a slave to her half-sister. To forge her escape from bondage, Craft disguised herself as a wealthy, disabled white man and had her husband, William, pose as “his” slave.
“For Ellen to both work this disguise on so many levels and escape in the manner she did, traveling on trains and steamships, is incredibly brave. It was to save her life, but at the same time she’s risking her life with every breath, every step on this road,” said Woo. “This was such a brazen disguise and means of travel because they’re not hiding in any way. Every single person they meet could be a problem. At this time in Georgia, white people had the power, by law, to stop them.”
On Tuesday, March 28, Woo will offer an online discussion of “Master Slave Husband Wife” through an author talk co-hosted by the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library, Bedford Library and Lewisboro Library.
Woo was introduced to Craft as a graduate student at Columbia University when she read her narrative story. “I fell headlong into the narrative. It just was a transformative reading experience for me. From the very first page of their story when they’re talking about the potential loss of family and the tangled vines of Ellen Craft’s biological history, I just wanted to know more,” explained Woo. “I actually didn’t set out to write this book. I just kept thinking about them and coming back to them.”
A determined researcher, Woo spent several years examining archives at the Boston Public Library, searching through newspapers, narratives written by the Crafts, speeches, and letters written by activists. “I’ve never had a research journey quite like this before,” said Woo, who holds a Ph.D. from Columbia and has written for The Boston Globe and the Wall Street Journal, and is the author of “The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Fight Against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times.”
“I found much more than I ever thought possible. A lot of that information came through their enslavers. The archives are kind of a thought place and there’s an imbalance between [what is written by] the enslavers and the enslaved,” she said. “To unpeel those layers was challenging but also an incredibly rewarding experience.”
Woo also had the opportunity to meet and talk with many of Craft’s descendants, including her great-great-granddaughter Peggy Trotter Dammond Preacely, a freedom writer and civil rights activist. “Peggy put her life on the line during the Civil Rights Movement where there was a tremendous amount of violence and danger. She’s taken courage in these moments from this knowledge of where her ancestors have walked,” Woo said.
Woo said one of her favorite stories she found while culling through the archives is from when Ellen was in the United Kingdom. “I traveled all over the UK and saw the incredible sights she saw. She’s going through fancy drawing rooms and speaking with all different kinds of people,” recounts Woo, noting people were always talking about Ellen’s ladylike, charismatic, and gracious presence. “She was quoted by British friends as saying, ‘if only my old mistress could see me now.’ She’s walking through these places that are beyond the imaginings of the people who enslaved her.”
Unearthing Ellen’s true self was foremost in Woo’s research. “I do think I was looking to see her because she doesn’t really leave much behind in the way of paperwork,” she explained. “The original narrative has William Craft’s name only on the cover, and a lot of the newspaper accounts that I came to discover or that others had unearthed before me quote William as the major speaker, although Ellen was the one everybody was excited about and super interested in.” Woo sought to get past that and find glimpses of her, especially her life in bondage, recalling an incredible sentence in the Craft’s narrative: ‘My wife’s first master was her father and her mother his slave and the latter is still the slave of his widow.’ “Categories like master slave husband wife get all confused. You see that in that one sentence. There are so many lines crossing, so much confusion, and you have no names. I wanted to see the people inside that sentence.”
A memory that resonated with Woo was the time when one of Ellen’s British friends recalls Ellen’s grace and presence in their household and at one point she sees and hears Ellen singing a song and quotes a few words from it. “I was able to find the song in an abolitionist song book. The song was called A Fugitives Triumph,” said Woo. “In this hidden, private moment, you see that Ellen Craft has the last words. She’s literally singing a fugitive’s triumph.”
Ilyon Woo's author talk, hosted by the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library, will take place Tuesday, March 28 via Zoom from 7:30-9:00 p.m. Click here to register.
Headshot photo credit: Michael Wilson