Thursday, July 03, 2008

5000 Miles to Freedom by Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fraden

5,000 Miles to Freedom is the remarkable true story of two slaves, Ellen and William Craft, a Light-skinned negro woman and her dark-skinned husband, who managed to escape from their masters by posing as a White Male and his servant, and taking the train north out of slave country.

Although their original journey was only 1,000 miles, it didn't guarantee their freedom. Eventually, they had to move to Boston, and when the North agreed to send runaway slaves back to their owners, they ended up moving to England so that the shadow of slave-catchers couldn't darken their doorstep.

Along the way they made many friends, but some of their friends in England were upset when Ellen and William decided to leave High Society where they had been lionized but treated in the same manner as performing animals, as a spectacle, and became innkeepers in a middle-class section of England.

Though that eventually ended in failure, neither of the Crafts turned to their rich friends for help (which is what the friends predicted they would do when their venture failed). Instead, they sought to make their own way in the world, and when the South finally fell after the civil War, they returned and opened a school to teach newly-free blacks to read. Even when that eventually went bankrupt during the collapse of the reconstructionist era, they continued to survive on their own, relying on themselves and their own industry.

This book was an amazing story, all the more amazing for its true nature. But the book is only partly about their journey and also explores the Crafts as people. For the most part, they were unable to read and write until they learned during their sojourn in Boston and England. Until then, they were unable to record their own thoughts, but Ellen made their opinions on the subject clear, especially to authors who made black slaves objects of fun.

Reading about the Crafts, whose story I had never heard of before, was intriguing and enlightening, especially the story of Ellen, who was at least half-white, and the subject of many whippings and beatings from her father's white wife, who resented her presence in the house. She was eventually given as a marriage present to her own half-sister, who kept her on as a slave.

William, who was much darker-skinned, had a more usual story, but lost most of his family when they were sold away by the wife of his owner, who decided to nullify her husband's will, which freed his slaves upon his death. What William did have going for him was his skills in cabinet-making, which allowed him to amass the savings that he and his eventual wife used to escape slavery.

I really enjoyed learning about the Crafts and their story, and would recommend this National Geographic book to anyone interested in History. It's extremely good, and also places the story in the larger context of slavery at the time.

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