This brief but riveting history was just released last month. Erica Armstrong Dunbar is a Professor of Black Studies and History at the University of Delaware and has previously published an historical work entitled A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City. In the course of doing research some two decades ago, Dunbar came across an advertisement in an issue of the Philadelphia Gazette in 1796 for the capture of President Washington’s runaway slave Ona Judge. Her curiosity piqued, Dunbar resolved to return to this story and uncover who Ona Judge was and what happened to her. Through her research, Dunbar has been able to piece together Ona’s family history, her relationship to George and Martha Washington’s family and estate, how she most likely escaped, where she landed, and the impact of her escape on her relations still enslaved at Mt. Vernon. While some of what Dunbar offers regarding Ona is based on well informed speculation (Ona was illiterate and left no record behind other than an interview from 1845), most of what she uncovers regarding George and Martha Washington is based on facts backed up by historical records. It probably still shocks some people to learn that the founding fathers owned slaves, but even more shocking is the reaction of the president of the United States to the self-emancipation of his wife’s personal attendant and the lengths to which he went to try to recapture Ona.
Ona Judge was born at Mt. Vernon in 1774, the daughter of a slave named Betty and a white indentured servant named Andrew Judge. Like her mother, Ona was a “dower slave,” the property of Martha Custis Washington and her estate. Ona became the personal attendant to Martha Washington at the age of 10, following in her mother’s footsteps; she was expected to help Martha with her personal needs as well as acting as a seamstress. Ona would have also had to learn to deal with her mistress’s moods and help with the grandchildren that Martha Washington raised after the untimely deaths of her own children. George Washington was Martha’s second husband and brought his own slaves to the union, but Martha was the wealthier of the two and George would not have been in a position to dispose of Martha’s property. This will be significant when Ona runs away, since George will be responsible for making up the loss to the estate. George’s slaves would have worked alongside Martha’s at Mt. Vernon, an estate that seemed to never quite reach financial solvency. It was interesting to read that Washington was sometimes cash-strapped and had to balance managing the estate while also serving in the continental army and then as president.
In 1788, when George Washington became president and moved to the capital (first New York, and than Philadelphia in 1790), he took a handful of personally chosen slaves to go with him and Martha. Ona, age 14, was one of these select few and as such, would have had the opportunity to work alongside free whites and come to observe the lives of free blacks who lived in the north. Dunbar differentiates between New York and Philadelphia in a most illuminating way. The first two years of Washington’s administration passed in New York, where free blacks lived but in much smaller number than in Philadelphia. Slavery was legal in New York and for the elites, having slaves was a sign of status. The fact that George Washington owned slaves would have been unremarkable in New York. Even artisans and merchants were known to own one or two slaves, usually females who were desirable for their physical labor in both home and workshop. While abolitionist sentiment was evident and growing in NY through churches and the manumission society (which attempted to interrupt slave catchers in their work), Pennsylvania was the first state to enact a gradual abolition law. Any adult slave who lived there for 6 months could claim freedom. Those under the age of 18 would be obliged to fulfill a contract of servitude until the age of 28. The Washingtons seemed unaware of this fact until they were living in Philadelphia and Washington’s Attorney General and fellow Virginian Edmond Randolph tipped them off. In order to practice law in Pennsylvania, Randolph had had to take up residency and, by law, had to later free his slaves. The Washingtons were alarmed to say the least. They weren’t sure if their slaves were aware of this law, and they knew that anti-slavery sentiment ran high in Philadelphia. Moreover, due to their financial situation, any loss of “property” was highly undesirable. George Washington wanted to subvert the law without inviting unwanted negative public opinion, and so he found a way to get around it. Every 6 months, the Washington’s would move their slaves temporarily out of state, either to Mt. Vernon or just across the state line into New Jersey. After a period of time, they would then return to Philadelphia.
Ona’s decision to run away came toward the end of Washington’s presidency in 1796. At this point, several members of her family, including her mother, had died, and so her attachment to Mt. Vernon might have lessened. Certainly exposure to free blacks and the cosmopolitan lifestyle of the north had significant impact on Ona. But Dunbar convincingly argues that the deciding factor for Ona was most likely Martha Washington’s decision to give Ona to her granddaughter as a wedding gift. Exactly how Ona worked out her escape is unknown; she would have had to have help from members of the free black community in Philadelphia, but Ona would have had to be careful to never to seen in public consorting with such people. Given Ona’s high profile as Martha Washington’s personal slave, this would have made meeting with allies very difficult, but Dunbar, through some impressive sleuthing, proposes a convincing theory of how it was done. In an 1845 interview with an abolitionist newspaper, Ona still refused to name names, so we can never know for sure who these heroic men and women were.
While Ona made it to New Hampshire, her troubles were far from over. As an unmarried woman, a fugitive, and a person of color, she would never be completely safe or free of worry. Moreover, she would have to find work at a time when very few options existed other than as a domestic laborer, hard work that Ona had not necessarily had to perform as the first lady’s attendant. In New Hampshire, Ona married, had children, and experienced devastating personal loss. She had a very hard life, but she was free. Ona was also pursued by George Washington until his death in 1799. Washington seemed to believe that Ona had been “beguiled” away from them by a Frenchman they had met in Philadelphia. He imagined in 1796 that Ona was pregnant and abandoned, and would be willing to come “home” to the Washingtons who had treated her “like family”. When his agents, who had been told of Ona’s residence in Hew Hampshire, informed him that he was wrong on all counts, Washington seems to have become more angry and determined to get her back. Dunbar’s descriptions of Washington’s attempts at recapturing her are shocking for their illegality. This is a George Washington we don’t meet in the history books. The president who signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law in 1793, a law which guaranteed that fugitives would not be extradited until having a day in court, tried to use his personal influence to work around this requirement. Fortunately, the growing anti-slavery sentiment in the north, even among Washington’s former allies, and the shifting political tides frustrated Washington’s attempts.
When he died in December of 1799, George Washington’s will stipulated that his slaves be emancipated after Martha’s death. Martha, however, freed them shortly thereafter, fearing for her own safety if she did not. Martha’s slaves were divided among her heirs upon her death, but it is interesting to note the fate of Ona’s younger half-sister Philadelphia. Philadelphia took Ona’s place as the wedding gift to Martha’s granddaughter. She found herself living in Georgetown, in the new capital city, and she married a free black man while still enslaved herself. Philadelphia eventually found freedom, but by a different route from Ona. Her husband, who happened to be related to Martha Washington, frequently came to the financial aide of the Custis heirs.
Ona Judge is singular not just in that she successfully freed herself from enslavement, but also in that she, a female, did so and then managed to scrape out an independent life for herself under harsh and dangerous circumstances. This would be an appropriate and recommended read for high school and older, and would make a great companion piece to courses on the American Revolution and/or founding fathers (especially if they include any of those books by Joseph Ellis). Ona Judge was a courageous woman and her story reveals the contradictions inherent in the founding of the nation.