In December, 1848, William and Ellen Craft conceived an escape from slavery in Georgia and, eight days later, after running 1000 miles, they were free. Ellen’s mother had been raped by her slaveowner, so she was nearly white. Regardless, the children of slaves followed the condition of the mother. William, on the other hand, was dark- complexioned. Their strategy was surprisingly simple and incredibly dangerous.
Ellen disguised herself as an invalid master traveling North with his slave.
Though it was unlawful in Georgia for a white man to trade with slaves without the owner’s permission, William knew that whites would sell anything the slave could pay for. “Not that they sympathize with the slave, but merely because his testimony is not admitted in court against a white man.” So William purchased pieces of Ellen’s costume from different merchants, never arousing suspicion. Again, not because these men did not compare notes; rather, no one expected a slave to be intelligent enough to plot such an audacious escape.
Literacy, one of the hallmarks of being human, undermined a major premise of slavery and enabled slaves to read the truth of their enslavement and “become wise.” Consequently, teaching slaves how to read and write was prohibited by law, punishable by fines, whippings, and imprisonment. The Crafts would have to register their names in the Custom-House book in Charleston, South Carolina. Ellen’s solution was to bind her hand in a sling “and with propriety ask the officers to register my name for me.” To conceal her smooth complexion and limit any conversation that might reveal her voice, she wrapped a scarf around her face, emphasizing her illness.
Their trip was fraught with danger, not the least of which was discovery. But an additional burden for Ellen was listening to the racist, demeaning, self-righteous conversations of the white passengers among whom she sat without reacting and responding.
Like all slave narratives, William’s document is also an abolitionist tract. Besides condemning the hypocrisy of clergymen who misuse Scripture to defend the “peculiar institution,” William exposes the legal horrors of slavery. For example, according to Article 4, section 12 of the Georgia constitution, the death of a slave goes unpunished “unless such death should happen by accident in giving such slave moderate correction”; “if any slave … shall refuse to submit to undergo the examination of any white person, it shall be lawful for such white person to pursue, apprehend, and moderately correct such slave … such slave may be lawfully killed.” Again, the circumstances are irrelevant because no slave witness could ever testify that said correction was immoderate.
After the Civil War, the new constitution reluctantly abolished slavery, but subsequent documents codified Jim Crow practices well into the 20th century. Despite Brown v The Board of Education in 1954, Georgia resisted school desegregation until it was forced to comply. Only the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act ended legal segregation.
Then, in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act that required states with histories of discrimination in voting to obtain a preclearance from the federal government before enacting changes to their procedures. Defending the decision, Chief Justice John Roberts stated, “our country has changed.” Within 24 hours of the ruling, southern states released from the preclearance process passed restrictive voting legislation.
By 2018, nearly 1,000 U.S. polling places had closed, which reduced voter turnout in many predominantly African-American counties. There were also cuts to early voting, purges of voter rolls, and imposition of strict voter ID laws. In Georgia, voting rights advocates argued that then-secretary of state Brian Kemp had diluted the power of voters of color through strict voter registration requirements, the closure of more than 200 polling places, and the purging of hundreds of thousands of voters. Critics said Kemp also failed to adequately prepare for long lines and potential voting issues on Election Day, when he defeated Stacey Abrams even as he oversaw the gubernatorial election.
Last week, Kemp signed into law what many are calling Jim Crow 2.0, but which Kemp defended as necessary. "Significant reforms to our state elections were needed. There's no doubt there were many alarming issues with how the election was handled, and those problems, understandably, led to a crisis of confidence." Despite the fact that this “crisis of confidence” was based on the lie of massive voter fraud in the 2020 election that was debunked by Georgia’s own secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, Republicans seized upon the rhetoric to ‘reform’ a system that worked – against them however – and, in the process, disenfranchise minority voters.
In 1860, William Craft described the laws that undergirded slavery as “odious.” What would he think of Georgia’s new Voting Law SB 202?