With every day exposing another revelation about someone famous – now infamous – Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s National Book Award Finalist, Never Caught, adds to the list of politicians who are not who they seem. If you think of George Washington as the stalwart leader of the Revolutionary troops, the fatherly first President, or even the boy who chopped down the cherry tree and would not lie about it, Dunbar’s story of Ona Judge may change your impression.
Modern accounts of history sometimes conveniently forget the founding fathers used slaves to run their households and, in the case of Southern aristocrats, kept thousands to run their plantations and farms. Ona Judge was born into slavery and came to Mount Vernon with Martha Custis as part of her dowry. When the Washingtons moved to the Philadelphia White House, she was among the trusted household slaves who came with them as Martha’s personal dresser and attendant. Ever the politician, Washington maneuvered around Pennsylvania’s 1780 gradual abolition law, sending his slaves back from Philadelphia to Virginia every six months to prevent them from claiming freedom. Pennsylvania law required the emancipation of all adult slaves who were brought into the commonwealth for more than six months.
On May 21, 1796, as George and Martha Washington ate their supper in the Philadelphia Executive Mansion, their twenty-two year old house slave, Ona Judge, walked out of the house and into freedom. With the help of the free black community in Philadelphia, Judge made her way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where the free black community and white supporters provided refuge.
Dunbar’s history exposes the Washingtons as slave holders who adamantly believed in keeping their human property, and she notes their shock at the “ingratitude” of Judge; the President wrote she had fled “without any provocation.” Later, Judge recounted she had “never received the least moral or mental instruction” while with the Washingtons, and had been treated as property, just like all her family. Despite being viewed as a privileged household slave by the Washingtons, they determined how and where she lived. Martha Washington’s gift of the slave to her newly wed granddaughter triggered Judge’s escape.
When Judge runs away before the group returns to Virginia at the the end of the Presidency, Washington uses his political influence and substantial power, sometimes illegally, to find her and bring her back. Washington was willing to abuse his office and power to hunt another human being, while Martha Washington’s outrage fueled her husband’s pursuit of Judge.
Amazingly, Judge is able to negotiate with one of Washington’s abolitionist friends when she is first found in New Hampshire, but ultimately she must run again, always living in fear of being found. Judge remained firm that she would “‘rather suffer death’ than return to slavery” as Dunbar exposes the emotional toll of separation from family and the physical and economic realities of day-to-day living for black women. Her life of freedom costs her security and left her in poverty, but her progeny are finally rewarded with a better life.
As a fugitive, Dunbar remained hidden throughout her life, and she protected the people who gave her refuge. Dunbar’s account uses Judge’s 1845 interview in the Granite Freeman and 1847 interview in the Liberator, the only recorded interviews Judge gave about her life, after many who had helped her had died. Well-referenced manuscripts, letters, journals and approximately 130 secondary sources add to her documentation as she convincingly immerses the reader in the life of Ona Judge and changes the perception of George Washington.