A Passing Identity: The Ellen Craft Story

Man, woman; African American, Asian; gay, straight; rich, poor. No matter where we are born in the world, we are assigned various classifications by which others can identify, relate to or alienate us. These identities become a part of who we are, and how we view ourselves. However, what happens when we are abused, mistreated, or even robbed of basic human rights because of these identities into which we are born? For some, passing has become the necessary way to reach a better life. People have passed as different races, sexual orientations, and genders in order to live the kind of life they were denied because of the circumstance in to which they were born. Ellen Craft was a slave in the 19th century who understood the challenges but ultimate inevitability of passing in order to be able to have the life she wanted for herself and her family.

Ellen and William Craft.
Ellen and William Craft.
Ellen Craft was the daughter of an African American slave woman and her white master, and as a result she was born light skinned. She and her husband, William, were slaves to a family in Macon Georgia in the mid 1800s. In the winter of 1848 William and Ellen made the decision that they were going to run away to the north where they could be free. William knew that because Ellen was light skinned she could pass as a white person, however she could not be a white woman traveling alone with a black man, as that would have been considered scandalous. There would be simply too much attention from others for them to safely escape without being identified as runaway slaves. William came to the conclusion that Ellen would need to pass as a white southern gentlemen traveling with his slave.
As if it were not frightening enough for Ellen to pass as a different race, she now needed to adopt a different gender. Ellen came up with the disguise, which would allow her to convincingly pass as a young white man. She transformed her appearance “with spectacles, boots, a short haircut, men’s trousers, and a top hat, the physical metamorphosis was complete.” Gone was the female slave, Ellen Craft. She was now Mr. William Johnson.
Ellen Craft passing as Mr. William Johnson.
Ellen Craft passing as Mr. William Johnson.
Ellen was responsible for convincingly passing as a different race, and gender, but that too would not be enough to ensure safe travels to the north. In order to gain necessary passages and not garner unwanted attention, Ellen would also need to pass as a southern gentleman accompanied by his personal slave. Therefore, she needed to have “…an advanced understanding of southern social and gender norms, thus revealing the crucial linkages that passing forged between race and class.” Ellen’s performance was so persuasive that on the way to Philadelphia young women were noted to have swooned at the presence of the dashing southern gentlemen.
A crucial element of being an upper class gentleman was being educated. This of course posed a problem, as Ellen was illiterate. She knew that if she were asked to sign her name at anytime, her lack of literacy would reveal her true identity. She therefore added more to her character, making Mr. William Johnson an injured and sickly person. Ellen created a sling for her right arm, allowing her to ask others to write her name for her without reason for suspicion. She made a poultice to wrap around her chin, cheeks, and tie across her head. This hid the fact that she had no facial hair and compellingly added to the charade that she was quite unwell. Additionally, her perceived illness often excused her from conversations with other gentleman, which would have undoubtedly revealed her identity. William convinced people even more of Ellen’s gentlemanly status as he was attentively by her side throughout the trek. Some gentlemen even went to so far as to compliment her on her excellent slave as well as to warn her to keep an eye on him when they reached the north as he might try to escape.
Though there were some close calls, Ellen and William Craft were able to successfully reach the north and achieve their freedom as a result of Ellen’s ability to convincingly pass as a different race, gender, and class. This story may seem like a thrilling tale of the past and the antebellum era. Surly people have no need to pass any longer, as our society has overcome institutions like slavery and Jim Crow. While Ellen’s story is a complex and awe inspiring one, she was by no means the first nor will she be the last person to pass. Individuals today often feel the need to pass as straight when they are gay, rich when they are poor, able bodied when they are disabled, or any number of other circumstances in order to feel safe or to find acceptance. As long as society places importance on any of the socially constructed hierarchies over any other, individuals will feel the need to turn away from their own identities and adopt ones that provide greater acceptance. We need to attentively focus on what makes everyone wonderful, and promote tolerance, understanding, and appreciation of all individuals in order to make the world more welcoming and safe enough to end the need for passing.

12 thoughts on “A Passing Identity: The Ellen Craft Story

  1. Great post, Caitlin! I like that you referenced what would be considered passing today. As I was reading your post I was thinking about this. So many people are still mistreated, abused, bullied, etc. for so many things and it forces people to try and become something else to “fit in”. I don’t want to equate current passing to the past as the stakes were very high and many people lived in constant fear; however, there are similarities to what is happening today.

  2. I also found the story of Ellen and William Craft completely fascinating. Usually when I think of passing I think of skin color or physical features, but Hobbs really brought the element of class out for me. It’s so interesting that almost even more importantly than enacting whiteness was performing characteristics of what was seen as upper-class. Seeing the intersectionality of race and class so clearly outlined in this book was fascinating.

    1. Tori, that’s what I found really interesting about this story and something I hadn’t thought of before – that African-Americans passing during this time period would have had to act like white people, not just look like them. This was echoed in some of Hobbs’ other narratives as well, and I think these real-world examples helped bring these ideas to life for me.

  3. Abled bodied when they are disabled rung quite close to home for me. While I make no effort to hide my disability (how can I?), I often worry about how severe my disability presents itself and have pretended to hear when I don’t. Like Melissa says, I am not trying to equate the past with the present. There are different pressures going on. I wonder what kind of dialogue is needed? How can we talk about equality when people have different needs? We live in a white, hetero normative, masculine, ablist world where there are certains expectations. Can we lower these?

  4. Thanks for the expansion and Ellen Craft, Caitlin! People who are passing are experiencing a certain kind of fear that we cannot even fathom. As Matt has noted, we must alter these expectations of what it means to be a person of worth. We can assist as museum professional by providing a rich, equal history.

  5. I read a book about Ellen and William Craft in fifth grade, and was always intrigued by their story. I enjoyed learning more about them. I think you made an excellent point that passing is more than just physical characteristics; you had to act a certain way in order to pull it off, and class has a lot to do with the “proper” behavior.

    I’d also like to know more about William’s role in their escape. Although he knew how to act as a personal slave to a southern gentleman, it must have been hard to play that role to his own wife. I wonder what was going through his mind during the escape.

  6. Like Tori and Emily, I like how you illuminated the intersectionality underlying passing. It seems from the book that a lot of people who passed were upper-middle class. The Johnstons were able to pass for so long because they were upper-middle class and he was a well-respected doctor. It is very interesting how society’s perception of a person can change based on their socioeconomic status.

  7. Caitlin, I really enjoyed reading your post. I think the ability to pass also extends past African Americans identity and can be viewed as “advantageous” for other groups. Before 9/11 and even stricter border control in Mexico I wonder if immigrants from Mexico or Latin America or immigrants from other regions would have been able to pass for white if they were very light skinned and enter the country with less scrutiny. The idea that being white is equated with being an “American” is a historically charged issue in this country. The other idea is that often times people who are of mixed racial identities feel pressured to identify themselves as being one racial identity because of the color of their skin. It is often difficult for someone who is mixed to identify as being Hispanic and white or identify as being white if they are also African American. Being biracial myself, I have faced this issue growing up in a predominately white community.

  8. I find this story so fascinating. For me, it highlights the arbitrary, socially constructed nature of race and gender. In this story, the nature of gender is external: Ellen Craft was accepted as a man because she looked like a man. The women who swooned at the southern gentleman found her handsome because her appearance fit an idea of what they were attracted to (or were expected to be attracted to). Caitlin, thank you for highlighting all the different ways people can “pass,” even today.

    1. Miranda, I had a similar take away from the Craft story and this post. Passing exists only because society allows for such situations to occur due to people’s understandings, assumptions, and biases. How shameful it is that some people need to be running from identities instead of embracing them. As Caitlin so clearly put, “As long as society places importance on any of the socially constructed hierarchies over any other, individuals will feel the need to turn away from their own identities and adopt ones that provide greater acceptance.”

  9. Caitlin, I enjoyed how you included other contemporary issues and how passing is still used in practice today. I also appreciated how you emphasized that passing was/is not just hiding/changing one characteristic; it was/is/ assuming a complete different identity. I wonder what we as a society lose when people feel so compelled to pass that they alter their natural gifts, talents, and identities.

  10. Great post Caitlin! I agree that despite the social changes, many Americans still pass: black for white, gay for straight, and in many new ways as well. Passing is usually considered negative and cowardly and a betrayal of one’s self. But many people who pass today are people with good intentions and purpose whose decision to pass is an attempt to bypass injustice, and to be more truly themselves.

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