For Ellen and William Craft, two people escaping their enslaver in 1848, all was going according to plan. That is, until they reached Baltimore.
At the ticket counter of the B&O Railroad’s historic Mount Clare Station, William was told he’d need the bond of a white man deemed respectable enough to certify his voyage.
But the couple was well prepared. Ellen, a Black woman with a light complexion, had chopped her hair and donned a fashionable suit. Posing as William’s master, her arm dangling from a sling to disguise her inability to write and a scarf covering her face on account of a fake toothache, Ellen’s ruse led the pair to freedom.
They were just a few of the five freedom-seekers known to have passed through Mount Clare, the nation’s oldest rail depot, on the property of Baltimore’s B&O Railroad Museum.
Earlier this month, the National Park Service named the museum to its National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, a group of nearly 700 sites across 39 states with connections to the journeys of escaping slaves.
The museum also received a $200,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to establish a permanent exhibit in the Mount Clare depot to tell the stories of the freedom-seekers who passed through the station — and to explore the connections between the metaphorical Underground Railroad and the railroad itself. It’s likely to open in the spring of 2022.
It will also be a journey in self-reflection, highlighting the challenges faced by enslaved people like the Crafts who had to go to lengths to escape bondage via the Baltimore & Ohio railroad, said the museum’s executive director, Kris Hoellen. It comes at a time when institutions across the country are reevaluating how they tell stories of racial injustice, partly in response to mass protests after police killings of Black men and women.
“Of all things during those time periods, it’s complex. It’s not all good. It’s not all bad,” Hoellen said of the B&O’s relationship to the Underground Railroad. “But the key for us is: The whole story needs to be told. And these are frequently stories that have been underrepresented. And this was our opportunity to give voice to these stories.”
The stories uncovered so far are harrowing.
There was Henry “Box” Brown, who famously shipped himself to freedom along the rails in a box 3 feet long and less than 3 feet deep. After pouring acid on his body to avoid work, Brown sealed himself inside with the help of a freed friend and a white sympathizer, and began his journey from Richmond, Virginia, to Philadelphia.
For the 27-hour voyage, Brown, sipping water stored in an animal’s bladder, crouched in his wooden prison. At least once, he was placed upside-down, despite a marking that begged “This Side Up.”
“I felt my eyes swelling as if they would burst from their sockets; and the veins on my temples were dreadfully distended with pressure of blood upon my head,” Brown later wrote in his memoir. “I felt a cold sweat coming over me which seemed to be a warning that death was about to terminate my earthly miseries.”
In that instance, he was eventually overturned by a weary traveler, and his escape proved a shocking success. At least one enslaved person took a similar tack, Hoellen said. B&O Museum archivists determined a pregnant woman shipped herself north as well. When allies opened her box in Philadelphia, they feared she had died, but they were able to revive her, said the museum’s chief curator, Jonathan Goldman.
Prior to the establishment of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, a decision by B&O leadership may have helped some slaves flee aboard trains. Goldman said the curators discovered documents indicating that the company opted to pay $500 fines associated with abetting escapes rather than police their trains for runaways.
“It would have been cheaper to hire somebody to walk up and down the trains than to pay those fines,” Goldman said. “I looked it up, and $500 is equivalent to over $14,000 today.”
Odds are, plenty more slaves used the railroads to flee their captors. The search for more will be ongoing, Goldman said, and the museum’s researchers can already say that several others fled on B&O’s rails in the state, or via other stations, like Camden.
For the museum, the process of reckoning with the B&O’s Black history had already begun, with the establishment of the African American Railroading Oral Archives project and tours and events at the museum focused on Black history. The decision to apply for the Underground Railroad designation came about a year ago.
“Are we reckoning with history? I think it’s just the right thing to do,” Goldman said. “This is a major part of American history, and we want to explore railroading history completely.”
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.