28 January, 2018
“One-Drop Rule” Embodied in the William and Ellen Craft Slave Narrative
Slavery in the American South was built upon a system of distinct separation in physical attributes, mental capacity, and human rights between white and black races. “The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery”, a narrative written by a black slave, hones in on the experiences of biracial or mulatto slaves, and both the hardships and opportunities this afforded them. In the beginning of the narrative, we learn that Ellen Craft was born to her master who was a white man and the master’s slave, her black mother (Craft, 2). Contrary to most slave narratives, this one does not heavily detail brutal slave life on plantations or in their shabby living quarters, but instead provides historical context for the laws that affected how slaves were treated as property and how easily they were separated from their families. As the anger and injustice mounted on the eve of the civil war, this narrative served to show the public that black people are indeed human beings with intelligence and skin complexion cannot determine how a person is treated in society.
The South abided by the informal “One –Drop Rule” which defined a black person as anyone with as little as one drop of “black blood” (Davis). This allowed slave owners to embody the perspective that each race had a distinct blood type correlating to physical and mental capacity. It also enabled whites to massively enlarge the slave population with the offspring of slave holders. For example, Ellen Craft was a slave to her own father. This rule also led to the kidnapping of young white, children and enforcing them into slavery after portraying these children as mixed with black blood. The Muller daughters were kidnapped upon arrival to New Orleans and months later, a family member spotted Salome Muller in a wine shop as a slave. In order to testify, the Mullers had to provide evidence that Salome was their white child and not a mixed black person by providing witnesses such as the midwife who delivered her. After trial, it was found that Salome had no trace of African American descent and was being unlawfully enslaved (Craft, 3-4). Another case detailed a seven year old boy stolen from his Ohio home and then tanned and stained in a way where he was indistinguishable from a person of color, and sold as a slave in Virginia (Craft, 7). The narrative detailed the laws of the South that stated any child born to a slave mother, even if his or father was white, would be considered a slave. It was also considered unlawful for anyone of purely European descent in the slave states to intermarry with a person of African extraction, but a white man could live with as many colored women as he pleased without damaging his reputation (Craft, 7). Male slave owners actually preferred biracial female slaves, due to their aesthetically pleasing features, where rape and concubinage frequently occurred. As a result, many quadroons and octoroons (one fourth and one eighth African American) were born to slave holders, who possessed white physical features and were sometimes indistinguishable from pure whites, such as Ellen Craft (Davis). However, these biracial people were considered fully black by society and subjected to slavery. This definition of a black person is inextricably woven into the history of America and was later used to justify slavery and uphold the caste system Jim Crow Laws of segregation. Since blacks are defined by the one-drop rule, they are a socially constructed race for the advantage of white people, so that they are able to enslave more of the population and justify it with the “science” of black blood equating to lower mental capacity and certain physical traits. The one drop rule only applied to persons of African descent and at the time, America was the only country in the world who practiced this.
This flawed way of thinking is what allowed William and Ellen Craft to escape the South into freedom. By creating a disguise, cutting her hair, and covering parts of her face, Ellen was able to pass for a white slave owner and pretend her husband was her slave accompanying her across the border (Craft). This completely dismisses the South slave states’ way of thinking because although Ellen possessed “black blood”, she was intelligent in developing an elaborate escape plan, was taken as white by other slave owners on the train, and was able to become fully literate. William and Ellen Craft showed that people do not fit into distinct categories, whether it is black and white or man and woman, because they were able to break these stereotypes and gain freedom!
Craft, W. and Craft, E. (1860). Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery. London: William Tweedie, pp.1-34.
Davis, J. (1991). Mixed Race America – Who Is Black? One Nation’s Definition. [online] Pbs.org. Available at: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/mixed/onedrop.html . [Accessed 28 Jan. 2018].