Two significant figures in American history are honored in “A Thousand Miles and Counting,” a Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) produced short documentary film that celebrates William and Ellen Craft and their courageous escape from slavery.
SCAD screened the documentary on November 15 at the SCAD Museum of Art (MOA). This event also marked the fifth anniversary of the museum’s Craft Family Medallion. They also announced curriculum that focuses on this history that can be taught in grades K-12.
Following the screening was a conversation with Joël Díaz, director of SCAD MOA’s Evans Center for African American Studies, with Dr. Walter Evans, Vaughnette Goode-Walker, and Craft descendants Gail DeCosta and Vicki Davis Williams on the importance of preserving African American history and documenting acts of resistance.
The eight-minute documentary is based on the book “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom,” a written account by William and Ellen Craft, first published in 1860.
“We were lucky because in our family my great great grandparents told their story. I knew about the story, and we were just lucky that we had the writings. Every year I read the story and new generations in the family read the story,” said Vicki Davis Williams the great great granddaughter of the Crafts.
In the winter of 1848, over a decade before writing their account, the Crafts, an enslaved African-Amerian couple escaped from their enslavers in Macon, and embarked on a dangerous four-day journey to the free states.
They created a plan; Ellen, who could pass as a white person because of her lighter skin, would disguise herself as a deaf, male slave owner, and William as her enslaved person. Upon completing the first stage of their journey, the Crafts arrived in Savannah, passing through the Central of Georgia Railway depot, the very place where the SCAD Museum of Art stands today.
“She never denied her past life. They went on to become abolitionists and activists. Basically, they used passing—as they said—to their advantage, that she was light enough to look white and therefore could use that to achieve a freedom,” said Gail DeCosta, great great granddaughter of the Crafts.
Safe passage through Savannah was the first steps of their successful journey. They escaped north in December, 1848, by traveling by train and steamboat, arriving in Philadelphia on Christmas Day.
Their daring escape was widely publicized, and as prominent fugitives, they were threatened by slave catchers in Boston after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. So the Crafts emigrated to England where they found refuge. They lived there for nearly two decades and raised five children. The Crafts lectured publicly about their escape and challenged the Confederacy during the American Civil War. In 1860, they published a written account, “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom.”
Returning to America in in 1868, the Crafts opened an agricultural school for freedmen’s children in Bryan County.
They worked at the school and its farm until 1890. They eventually moved to Charleston to live with their daughter.
Ellen passed away in 1891 and William in 1900.
Over a century later in 2011, during the SCAD Museum of Art’s expansion, Dr. Walter O. Evans, a member of the SCAD Board of Visitors and benefactor of the SCAD Museum of Art’s Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art, shared the story of the Crafts with SCAD President and Founder Paula Wallace.
“The dramatic, real-life story of William and Ellen Craft is one of the most powerful I have ever heard. In 1848, they courageously escaped slavery and upended societal conventions of race, gender, and class in their 1,000-mile journey to freedom. Their travels, soon after escaping, remarkably landed them at the very site of today’s SCAD Museum of Art, and they lived in their final years nearby. We honor them as exemplars of many people who bravely and creatively changed their fate,” said Wallace.
During the discussion Dr. Evans talked about how 16 years ago, he went to the City of Savannah and many others numerous times to try to create something to recognize the contributions of Ellen and William Craft, but he says not enough people were interested.
“I had been trying to get state and local officials to create a marker to recognize, not just the Crafts but for other luminaries that had come to Savannah and there was no interest at all...until I made some statements in the New York Times. A reporter wanted to tell the story of how tourists and people come to Savannah and never know anything about the African American contributions to the city,” said Dr. Evans.
In 2016, SCAD commissioned and installed a commemorative bronze medallion designed by SCAD graduate and foundation studies professor Andrew MacDonald, in the lobby of the SCAD Museum of Art to illuminate the Crafts’ remarkable feat.
“In these times, we hear words like inclusion and equity. By acknowledging and providing context for this history, SCAD seeks to play a key role in ensuring a just, equitable, and inclusive future. I am also glad the SCAD Museum of Art’s Evans Center for African American Studies has partnered with Dr. Ann Levett and the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System to share the Craft story with our students,” said Savannah Mayor Van Johnson who was at the screening of the documentary.
The partnership between the SCAD MOA Evans Center for African American Studies and Savannah-Chatham County Public School System will be a two-part community-engaged learning experience.
SCAD Museum of Art will host an hour-long film screening and contextual conversation in SCCPSS schools, followed by a 90-minute tour and workshop at SCAD MOA to learn about elements discussed in the film: legacies of enslavement; historical preservation; and the importance of advocacy and activism and the university will be expanding this to other regional and national school systems in the future.
“I want to thank SCAD President Paula Wallace, Dr. Walter Evans, and the Savannah College of Art and Design for helping keep the amazing story of our ancestors alive and available to the public through this new educational film,” said Peggy Trotter Dammond Preacely, activist, poet, and great-great granddaughter of the Crafts.
A Thousand Miles and Counting is currently on view at the SCAD Museum of Art. For more information on the film and the curriculum visit scadmoa.org/crafts.