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Ona Judge was enslaved by the Washingtons. When she was to be given to Martha's very difficult daugther, Ona escaped. Despite the Washingtons' efforts, she was never recapatured. "Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge" by Erica Armstrong Dunbar tells the story of this amazing woman.

My friend told me about Ona Judge and I knew learning about her was a necessary detour from my presidents project. As you know if you have been following my blogposts, I have been very disturbed by our founding fathers' claims to want to end slavery while owning slaves. This book presented George and Martha as ruthless slave owners. I knew this was so although other biographers stopped short of calling the Washingtons to task on this. While speaking to a friend of mine about this, he said--as have many others--we should not look at the circumstances of the past with today's eyes. In other words, how can we judge the acts of persons in the 18th and 19th centuries with 21st century eyes? I call BS on that. No matter how old the eyes, morality is morality, humanity is humanity. In "Never Caught", Ms. Dunbar wrote without fear of putting a negative slant on one of America's most revered figures. Good for her.

Ona Maria Judge was born from the union of one of Martha's dower slaves and a white indentured servant. All Ona knew was being enslaved. As a smart and resourceful girl, Ona was assigned to Martha with the tasks of ensuring she and her clothes were kept clean, tending to her grooming, accompanying her on her outings, and so forth. When Martha went to New York City as the first first lady, Ona went with her. When Hamilton and Jefferson (#3) negotiated moving the capital to the Potomac after a ten-year-stay in Philadelphia, Ona moved with Martha to Philly.

At Mount Vernon, Ona had lived in a community of bondpeople. In NYC, she got her first glimpse of free blacks. But when Ona arrived in Philadelphia, her eyes must have been wide and her heart pumping with excitement. Here was a city where few were in bondage. Here was a city where the Washingtons kept the working life in the executive mansion hidden for fear of bad press. Here was a city where Ona Judge planned her escape. 

Many monumental events in life appear to be sudden but in actuality are a conflagration of events. That's how it happened for Ona. Mostly men escaped bondage because women did not want to leave their children behind, or if they took them escape would have been unlikely. Ona did not have children. Ona also had time to adjust to the idea of escaping by experiencing zero freedom at Mount Vernon, to seeing a glimpse in NYC, to viewing the full out reality of living free in Philadelphia. Also, in Philadelphia, an underground community had formed to free the enslaved. Ona was still a young woman in her twenties. She was healthy. The stage was set.

Reverand Richard Allen was a leader of the free black community in Philadelphia in the 1790's. He operated a chimney sweep business and serviced the executive mansion, which is where Ona met him and most likely expressed her initial desire to escape to him. Reverand Allen was also a cobbler and had his own shop. It is opined that when the Washingtons gave Ona money to buy new shoes, she went to his shop and plotted the details of her escape. 

Near the end of Washington's second (and final) term in office, a sympathetic ship captain took twenty-three-year-old Ona to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where she was given a place to live and found a job. She lived free (although in fear of being captured) and worked as a domestic. It wasn't long before she was recognized. Word got to Washington who demanded her return. Ona refused.

As typical of the past as the present, politics came into play. Washington had enacted the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which required that if escaped slaves were recaptured they were entitled to a trial. Washington knew his efforts to recapture Ona would give him a lot of bad press. How could the hero of the Revolutionary War and our first president be at the forefront of such an inhumane endeavor? So, instead of letting Ona remain free, he pursued her return on the down low. Perhaps his ego was involved as he believed she was his property. Maybe he felt he had been good to her. He had taken care of her and her family and kept her from poverty. How could she be so disrespectful? Or maybe he was thinking how Ona wasn't really his property. As Ona was a dower slave (like her mother) and belonged to Martha, if Ona wasn't returned Washington would be financially responsible for having "lost" her. 

As a free woman, Ona married and had three children. Although terrified of recapture, her desire to be free was stronger than her apprehension. In the end, the president's efforts to quietly negotiate her return failed. After his death in December 1799, neither Martha nor any of Washington's other heirs attempted to enslave Ona again. 

At the time of her death at seventy-five years of age, Ona was impoverished. While heartbreaking that her life ended in squalor, my 21st century eyes imagine it was worth the price of freedom.

If you want to read more about Ona Maria Judge Staines, here is a link to two interviews with her. 

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Joanne Lewis Blog