SCAD unveils new documentary on escaped slave couple in Georgia

Savannah is full of stories. You can walk around the city center almost every day and see clips narrated by different travel agencies. This architect designed this house, this building survived the fire of 1820, this ghost haunts this neighborhood.

While the stories are entertaining, they serve a purpose which is normally to teach the history of the city, but some stories have a larger purpose.

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Last week, the Savannah College of Art and Design premiered a film about Ellen and William Craft at the SCAD Museum of Art. “A Thousand Miles and Counting” shows how the young couple daringly escaped slavery in Macon to freedom in Philadelphia just before Christmas in 1848. The first leg of this journey took them through Georgia Central Station in Savannah.

I watched an auditorium full of people sitting in awe of the trades. We listened to the story told by historians and even some of the great-great-granddaughters of the Crafts.

“Ellen and William Craft were 22 and 24 when they devised this plan to escape slavery in Macon, Georgia, not only because they wanted to be free, but because they also wanted children,” said Vicki Davis Williams, the great-granddaughter of Trades.

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“They didn’t want to have children in slavery because they had been torn from their siblings and parents.”

Ellen Craft’s biological father owned her mother. When Ellen was 11, she was given to her own half-sister as a wedding gift.

With their shared childhood trauma pushing them forward, Ellen and William made the decision to escape. The film details how Ellen used her lighter complexion to dress up as a white man with William posing as her slave.

They arrived in Boston but were forced to flee to England a few years later after a new law could have sent them back to Macon. In England, they learned to read and write and even published a book about their escape. After the Civil War, they moved to Bryan County, Georgia, and opened a school to teach former slaves.

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The true story of the Crafts sounds like blockbuster Hollywood material. You would expect to hear this story included on most tours in Savannah, but the first time I heard this mentioned was a few weeks ago on an Art and Amble tour. Joël Díaz, director of the Evans Center for African American Studies at SCAD, said the college decided to draw attention to the story after Dr Walter Evans introduced it to President and Founder Paula Wallace. A bronze medallion has been added to the SCAD Art Museum to honor the heritage of craftsmanship.

“The museum is currently located at the historic site of the Central of Georgia Railroad Complex. It’s the connection and how we became aware of the story. We were moved to keep this story, ”said Díaz.

The Savannah touring narrative, especially ghost tours, has long revolved around white men, but it’s such a small part of the stories Savannah has to share. That narrative changes with films like “A Thousand Miles and Counting” and new exhibits at the Jepson Museums that are finally shifting attention to include stories and dark voices.

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Ghost tours should take this as a learning opportunity to include different perspectives on Savannah history that not only use black experiences as a plot device, but rather as the main characters.

As Mayor Van Johnson said in his opening speech before the screening of “A Thousand Miles and Counting,” stories bring us to life.

To watch “A Thousand Miles and Counting,” go to SCADMOA.org/Crafts.


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