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Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom

A History Camp Discussion with Ilyon Woo about her book, Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom.

From the Publisher:

1848 was a year of global democratic revolt. Sicily, Paris, Berlin, Vienna – people across Europe rose up against tyrannical power. Americans received news of these uprisings while the ground beneath their own feet shifted: there were five hundred thousand square miles of new territory to be claimed westward; immigrants from Ireland, Germany, China, and elsewhere were arriving; in New York, the first Women’s Rights Convention was held; and the two-party political system was breaking down as voters became polarized over the issue of slavery.
Against this backdrop, in Macon, Georgia, the enslaved married couple William and Ellen Craft planned their escape from bondage. Their story is one of the boldest feats of self-emancipation in American history. Posing as a master and slave, sustained by their love as husband and wife, they made their escape together across 1,000 miles in broad daylight, riding out in the open on steamboats, carriages, and trains from bondage to the free states of the North.
The world is remembering the heroic couple, with not 1 but 2 movies planned: first, an adaptation of William and Ellen Crafts’ memoir, directed by Hanelle M. Culpepper, and second, a film directed by Lynn Nottage and Tony Gerber that focuses on the Crafts’ lives after their escape in the free North, when they had to navigate their sudden celebrity. In 2023, the year of the 175th anniversary of the Crafts’ escape, MASTER SLAVE HUSBAND WIFE: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom by Ilyon Woo launched a renaissance for the Crafts and their story. Now available in paperback (on sale January 16, 2024/ Simon & Schuster), the book brings William and Ellen Craft’s cinematic story of daring, determination, and love to life.
During William and Ellen Craft’s journey, they dodged slave traders, military officers, and even friends of their enslavers who might have revealed their true identities. One traveler who encountered Ellen Craft in disguise as a disabled White man remarked that the invalid was “either a woman or a genius.” It turns out Ellen was both!
After securing their freedom in the North, the tale of their adventure soon made them celebrities and generated headlines around the country. Americans could not get enough of this charismatic young couple, who traveled another 1,000 miles crisscrossing New England, drawing thunderous applause as they spoke alongside some of the greatest abolitionist luminaries of the day—among them Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown.
But even then, they were not out of danger. With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, all Americans became accountable for returning refugees like the Crafts to slavery. Then yet another adventure began, as slave hunters came up from Georgia, forcing the Crafts to flee once again—this time from the United States. With three epic journeys compressed into one monumental bid for freedom, MASTER SLAVE HUSBAND WIFE is an American love story—one that would challenge the nation’s core precepts of life, liberty, and justice for all.

[Recorded on June 13, 2024.]

History Camp Authors

    America's Summer Roadtrip 2020

      Ilyon Woo is the author of The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother’s Extraordinary Fight Against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times. She received a Whiting Creative Nonfiction Writing Grant for MASTER SLAVE HUSBAND WIFE. Her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe and The Wall Street Journal, and she has received support for her research from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Antiquarian Society, among other institutions. She holds a BA in the Humanities from Yale College and a PhD in English from Columbia University.

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