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At Ta-Nehisi Coates' New House, Deed Tells the Story of Liberated Slaves

By Rachel Holliday Smith | May 6, 2016 5:25pm | Updated on May 9, 2016 8:42am
 Ellen Craft, pictured at left disguised as a white male slave owner, and her husband William escaped from slavery in 1848. Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates used the couple's name in a holding company used to purchase a Brooklyn home last month.
Ellen Craft, pictured at left disguised as a white male slave owner, and her husband William escaped from slavery in 1848. Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates used the couple's name in a holding company used to purchase a Brooklyn home last month.
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Composite: Public domain image; Department of Finance

A limited liability company often serves one of two purposes in New York: hiding big-money spending in politics or concealing the identities of purchasers of big-time real estate.

In the second case, deeds typically show nothing more than an address or vague title followed by the LLC acronym — for example, “Park Slope Associates Holdings 26 LLC,” the name of a company that recently purchased two Brooklyn homes for redevelopment.

But when it comes to a new home purchased by Ta-Nehisi Coates — The Atlantic reporter, author of “Between the World and Me” and arguably the foremost writer on African-American issues in the country — the LLC's name tells a fascinating story.

On the deed of a five-bedroom townhouse at 207 Lincoln Road in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens that Coates and his wife Kenyatta Matthews bought for $2.1 million last month, the pair are named as agents for the holding company “Ellen and William Craft Excursions LLC.”

Who are Ellen and William Craft? They were a 19th-century couple born into slavery in Georgia who became famous for their daring escape to Philadelphia — which involved cross-dressing, racial passing and a whole lot of courage, according to their 1860 book, "Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom."

The Crafts made their way from Macon, Ga. to Philadelphia in December of 1848, according to a Smithsonian account of their story, hiding in plain sight as a white male planter and his slave. Ellen, the daughter of her white master who had light-colored skin, cut her hair and wore men’s clothing on the trip to play the part of the slaveowner. Her husband William traveled as a “loyal slave,” the magazine said.

Though they journeyed for days by train and steamship through the pre-Civil War South — and had several near-misses with suspicious border patrol agents looking for escaped slaves — the Crafts arrived in Philadelphia on Christmas Day and found help from the active abolitionist network there.

They did not stay in the North for long, however, fleeing to England after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which allowed slave hunters to forcibly return escaped slaves to their masters.

The Crafts returned to America after the Civil War with five children and opened a school and cooperative farm for newly free slaves outside of Savannah, Ga.

It's no surprise Coates named his home's LLC for the pair. A scholar of African-American history and culture, the journalist has written extensively about black life, including “The Case for Reparations,” a cover story for The Atlantic, and, most recently, "Between the World and Me," the bestselling book on black life in America written as a letter to his teenage son.

Coates, a native of Baltimore, has lived in Washington, D.C., Harlem and, most recently, Paris, but rumors of the family's move to the Prospect-Lefferts Gardens Historic District have swirled all spring.