By: Kyle Laguerre
Separation of family members was a prevalent part of the slave trade. Even though many slave masters fathered children with the women they enslaved, these children were treated as chattel due to the fact freedom was determined by the freedom of the mother. Despite the fact many of these biracial enslaved persons had a lighter complexion, European heritage, and were their master’s own offspring they were not exempt from the injustices of slavery. In William Craft’s slave narrative Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom he describes this injustice occurring with his biracial wife Ellen, who was also an person, stating:
“Notwithstanding my wife being of African extraction on her mother’s side, she is almost white–in fact, she is so nearly so that the tyrannical old lady to whom she first belonged became so annoyed, at finding her frequently mistaken for a child of the family, that she gave her when eleven years of age to a daughter, as a wedding present” (2).
Because of her similarity to her half-siblings Ellen is separated from her mother due to her step-mothers spite. Later in life, Ellen used her lighter complexion to disguise herself as a white man to escape with her husband to freedom. Instances of separation were not uncommon at all in slave trade of the American south. Laws and general attitudes during the 1800s reinforced such practices by giving slave holders the rights over the lives of enslaved persons, to the degree that using them for sexual pleasure and selling their own children was common practice. Craft states that:
“Any man with money (let him be ever such a rough brute), can buy a beautiful and virtuous girl, and force her to live with him in a criminal connexion; and as the law says a slave shall have no higher appeal than the mere will of the master, she cannot escape, unless it be by flight or death.”(16)
This attitude was perpetuated because of how the cruelty of slavery was downplayed during the 1800s. In America slavery was an institution built on contradictions and self-justification. Besides the monetary value, one of the justifications used to argue for the necessity of slavery was that enslavement was allowing slave masters to elevating black people through religion and labor, because they could not help themselves. As absurd as the notion is, it was one of the reasons used by many religious slave owners to justify the use of black people as enslaved persons. In Walter Johnson, Turning People into Products he discusses how slave owners needed to find ways to justify the cruelty of slavery. He goes on to state that this is why slave traders would use proslavery rhetoric to reinforce their justifications, and craft narratives like the amputation of a enslaved persons’ fingers being performed out of mercy rather than punishment (127). Craft exposes this hypocrisy by providing his own personal account:
“My old master had the reputation of being a very humane and Christian man, but he thought nothing of selling my poor old father, and dear aged mother, at separate times, to different persons, to be dragged off never to behold each other again, till summoned to appear before the great tribunal of heaven” (9).
Through his narrative Craft exposes much injustices and hypocrisy that occurred with slavery especially when it came to the treatment of black women and separation of families. Through the telling of his wife’s experience, he even confirms that those who even share the same blood as their oppressors were not exempt from the injustices faced by enslaved persons. Although they did not face extreme physical abuse, the scars of separation left a lasting effect on William and Ellen when deciding to start a family and acted as their driving force to escape to freedom.
- Craft, William. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery. London: William Tweedie, 1860. http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/craft/craft.html
- Johnson, Walter, “Turning People into Products,” in Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001)