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Ilyon Woo's new book explores the relentless pursuit of freedom

Ilyon Woo, the author of <em>Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom.</em>
Michael Wilson
Simon & Schuster
Ilyon Woo, the author of Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom.

In her new book Master Slave Husband Wife, Ilyon Woo reconstructs the dramatic escape of a resourceful couple who escaped slavery.

"Master Slave Husband Wife" reconstructs the dramatic escape of a couple from slavery in 1848.
/ Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster
"Master Slave Husband Wife" reconstructs the dramatic escape of a couple from slavery in 1848.

Ellen and William Craft were considered the legal property of enslavers in Macon, Georgia. Their individual slave owners had at a much earlier point in their lives heartlessly separated them from their own loved ones.

In December 1848, the Crafts sought their freedom.

Ellen was a skilled seamstress. William was a talented cabinet maker. It was 800 miles to Philadelphia in the free state of Pennsylvania, but the Crafts managed to outwit all the forces that were against them and travel by train and boat in disguise.

Ellen Craft dressed in disguise as a man in which she fled slavery in Georgia.
/ New York Public Library (NYPL)
New York Public Library (NYPL)
Ellen Craft dressed in disguise as a man in which she fled slavery in Georgia.

"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," Woo tells Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep.

"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."

The Crafts would make Boston their home for a couple of years and become icons of the abolitionist movement, speaking to sold-out crowds wherever they went. But the Fugitive Slave Act meant their lives were always at risk, so they eventually moved to England. When the emancipation proclamation passed, they decided to return to America.

Ilyon Woo first became interested in the Crafts when she was in graduate school. After reading their own narrative, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, she was hooked: "Sometime you have that experience reading something that just seems to come off the page. And that happened for me in the quiet of the library, and I just haven't been able to stop thinking about it since."

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Interview highlights

On what America was like in 1848

It was an incredibly tumultuous time. 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.

The Crafts' journey to freedom began when they fled their home in Macon, Georgia, in December 1848.
David Lindroth / Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster
The Crafts' journey to freedom began when they fled their home in Macon, Georgia, in December 1848.

On the most terrifying moment of their escape

I might 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 couldn't have been a more terrifying start.

On their return from England, first to South Carolina and then Georgia

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.

On teaching the history of slavery

I hope this story will be inspirational for people of all ages, 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 and my own journey with the story. I feel like in many ways it began with my own childhood educational experiences at a school named for the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the way history was taught to me at that time. 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 and international histories. And it seemed 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.

This digital story was edited by Majd Al-Waheidi. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.
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