Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016
Savannah Morning News
You cannot make up a story like this.
Sometimes around 1848, the Crafts, a slave couple from Macon, married and desperate to be free, devise an outrageous plan of escape. And they pull it off. Ellen, a house servant, is the daughter of a white slaveholder and a black mother and is very light-skinned. For the 1,000-mile trip to freedom, which began in a train departing from Savannah, Ellen challenges race and gender when she disguises herself as a white male planter traveling with her slave. For the trip, her husband, William, poses as her personal valet. Ellen cut her hair, wears pants, a top hat and a jacket. To hide the fact that she couldn’t write she wears her arm in a sling. To minimize talking she wraps her face and pretends she was ill.
They make it up to Pennsylvania, then to Boston, where they learn to read and write. But they still aren’t safe. When Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, bounty hunters head north looking for the couple. From Boston the Crafts take off for Halifax, Nova Scotia. Eventually they sail to England, where they live with their five children and speak widely, opening and often against slavery.
Nineteen years later this improbable story circles back to the Savannah area when the Crafts return to the State to see Ellen’s mother. That’s when they decide to open the Woodville Co-Operative Farm School in Bryan County to train former slaves.
Raise your hand if you or anyone you know has ever heard this story – so close and yet so far from our consciousness and/or history books. Either story: the one about the Crafts or their determination to help others on the1, 800-acre farm less than an hour from Savannah. My hand would not be up.
It wasn’t until I went to the opening event at SCAD’s deFine art week that I heard the story. The art school was commemorating a plaque to the Crafts in its Museum of Art since it sits on the former site of the railroad, the one that launched the Crafts into their improbable trip. The plan for the historic marker was hatched by SCAD and Walter O. Evans and his wife, Linda, both inveterate collectors of books and art by and about African-Americans. Much of the art collection now resides at the SCAD Museum of Art. Walter, a former surgeon from Detroit, and Linda, a former high school science teacher, relocated to Savannah several decades ago. They are doing their best to bring the rest of us up to speed on a chapter of our country’s history no one seems too anxious to own or explore,
At least eight Craft relatives from all over the country traveled to SCAD for the dedication. The University of Georgia’s Barbara McCaskill spoke of the tale in her book, “Love, Liberation, and Escaping Slavery.”
The story of the Crafts is bold, heroic and empowering. I am glad we are now about to recognize it. But where are the hundreds of other stories? It’s not that they’re not around. Later in the week the subject of slavery came up again, this time at a three-day symposium entitled “Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture: Environmental Histories of the Georgia Coast,” an ambitious and well-attended project of the Ossabaw Island Foundation, Armstrong State University and Wormsloe Institute for Environmental History and the brainchild of Paul Pressley, a man who fortunately for us chose not to go gently into the night in 2004 when he stepped down as headmaster of Savannah Country Day School. The man is dogged; his curiosity never ends. This is not the first symposium Pressley organized. In 2008, it was called, “African-American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry: 18th to the 20th century.”
At the time he said he was struck at how little information was available about African-Americans in the Georgia Lowcountry. No kidding. One particular speaker, Tiya Miles (Dr. Miles if you add her doctorate title) turned a long title – “The Ghosts of Dunbar Creek: Slave Narratives, Dark Tourism, and the Meaning of Water” – into a tale of magic realism, mass suicide, and the folkloric story of a group of West African slaves who when transported from Savannah to Igbo Landing on St. Simons Island chose to leave the ship and walk back into the water towards their African homeland and certain death rather than tolerate slavery. As a metaphor, this myth of “flying Africans” became the basis for popular Gullah stories and the opening of Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon.”
This group of people, unlike the Crafts, chose another kind of freedom.
Both stories call for more chapters in our history books or at the very least more prominent historic markers. The Crafts have one. All that marks the Dunbar Creek site is a sewage disposal plant. We can do better than that.