In the footsteps of fugitives
March 4, 2014

Since first reading their slave narrative, Quanda Johnson became captivated by the story of William and Ellen Craft and their ingenious breakout from slavery.

Ellen, a house slave, was fair skinned, and used that to her advantage, donning men’s clothes for her disguise as a white cotton planter and master of her own husband William, who posed as her slave.  They then embarked on a perilous journey that took the couple from Macon, Georgia in 1848 to Halifax, Nova Scotia three years later.  From Halifax—“a most miserable, dirty hole it was” —they sailed to Liverpool, England where they lived out their lives together and raised five children in freedom. 

"For I  would much rather starve in England, a free woman, than be a slave for the best man that ever breathed aboard the American continent," said Ellen Craft. The Crafts recounted their escape in Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, written in 1860.

Ellen's disguise as a white man included having her arm in a sling so that she wouldn't be expected to sign papers or registers as the Crafts traveled to freedom as master and slave.

Quanda, fascinated by the courage of the Crafts, and others who came here like Richard Preston and Reuben Kelly, decided to retrace their footsteps to Halifax, a northern terminus for the Underground Railroad.  As a Fulbright scholar, she will be working with professors Bruce Barber, David Clark, Sol Nagler and Suzanne Funnell at NSCAD, and Jennifer Bain and Rob McClure at Dalhousie. Her research focuses on escaped slaves and their journey from the slave-holding U.S. to Atlantic Canada and Quebec, “the end of the line.”

 “I want to give witness to these lives, put flesh on their bones,” says Quanda, an actor and singer who has performed on Broadway.  She has a M.F.A. in acting from The New School University, and a Master of Music from The Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College, majoring in vocal performance.

Her research will be source material for what she coins as a theatrical “event” concert, titled Beyond the Veil of the Sorrow Songs, a multi-media performance in which students and members of the local arts community use their artistry to share in the testimony of slavery, the fugitive slave’s experience, and the dilemma of race in contemporary times. 

Taking place May 12-24 at the Dalhousie Arts Centre’s Murray Studio, the first week will consist of a series of workshops on the slave narrative and the legacy of the escaped slave as told through visual/media art, spoken word performance, African drumming, Scots/Irish fiddling, liturgical/modern dance, and the Sorrow Songs -- stirring Negro Spirituals including Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Roll, Jordan Roll, and Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. The second week will be an actual work-shopping of the concert, culminating in two days of performance, Friday, May 23, for high school students, and Saturday, May 24, for the general public.

Quanda describes Beyond the Veil of the Sorrow Songs as a “community conversation.”  “My idea is that the audience will sit and be awash with information in a very innovative way,” she says.  “I feel this history of the Underground Railroad and its tie to the Maritimes is everyone’s history to embrace and discuss.”

She is reaching out to NSCAD students and faculty to actively participate. In particular, she envisions two visual artists “who flank the stage as the concert is in progress” painting, their responses to audience reactions, onstage performances, and the visceral, emotional affect the work has on them, in the moment.  She would also like 10 visual artists to paint their impressions of one of 10 Sorrow Songs featured in Beyond the Veil of the Sorrow Songs; these will be included in the media presentation.  Quanda will also collaborate with a multi-media team from NSCAD and Dalhousie in coordinating sound, lighting, and special effects.

Interested in taking part?  Quanda would like to hear from you.  She can be reached at:


Fulbright scholar Quanda Johnson is researching the Underground Railroad in Atlantic Canada, culminating with the theatrical event, Beyond the Veil of the Sorrow Songs at the Dalhousie Arts Centre in May. (Bruce Bottomley Photo, Dalhousie University)



For more information on Ellen and William Craft, please see: The Great Escape from Slavery from the Smithsonian

The following links may also be of interest: