Barbara McCaskill, Professor of Culture and Community at the Penn Center and Civil Rights Digital Library; Associate Academic Director, Willson Center for Humanities & Arts, University of Georgia
Black Women’s Lives and Labors in Two Movements: The Georgia Fugitive Ellen Craft and Harlem’s Spectacular Carolyn Stanford Wilkins
Both Ellen Craft (c. 1826-1891) and Caroline Stanford Sparrow Wilkins (1894-1934) were celebrated during their lifetimes, and at least for Ellen, long after, because of seemingly sudden, transformative, paradigm-shifting events. Ellen’s moment was her oft-described “thrilling” 1848 escape from Macon, Georgia with her husband William (c. 1824-1900). In their 1860 memoir Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (reprinted 1861), they recounted their flight from bondage where Ellen disguised an invalid southern planter, seeking an expensive treatment for ailments up North, with William masquerading as their enslaved valet. Caroline’s marriage to Barron Wilkins (1865-1924), whose underworld empire of nightclubs helped launch the New Negro Renaissance, plucked her from obscurity to make her a star of the Jazz Age and a darling of the Black newspapers. My presentation shines a light on the margins of their stories, on who and where they were before the titanic shifts from slavery to freedom and rags to riches that would come came to define them, and what happened to them when their youth and favor dimmed. The fuller stories of their lives and labors, including Ellen’s enslaved childhood in Clinton, Georgia, and Carolyn’s adolescence in a working-class Cambridge, Massachusetts neighborhood, complicate meanings of Black girlhood, genius, and grit.
Part of the W. E. B. Du Bois Lecture Series