In Search of the Slave Who Defied George Washington

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Media Archive, Social Justice, United States on 2017-09-08 13:02Z by Steven

In Search of the Slave Who Defied George Washington

The New York Times

Jennifer Schuessler

Erica Armstrong Dunbar, the author of “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge,” at George Washington’s estate in Mount Vernon, Va.
Credit Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

MOUNT VERNON, Va. — The costumed characters at George Washington’s gracious estate here are used to handling all manner of awkward queries, whether about 18th-century privies or the first president’s teeth. So when a visitor recently asked an African-American re-enactor in a full skirt and head scarf if she knew Ona Judge, the woman didn’t miss a beat.

Judge’s escape from the presidential residence in Philadelphia in 1796 had been “a great embarrassment to General and Lady Washington,” the woman said, before offering her own view of the matter.

“Ona was born free, like everybody,” she said. “It was this world that made her a slave.”

It’s always 1799 at Mount Vernon, where more than a million visitors annually see the property as it was just before Washington’s death, when his will famously freed all 123 of his slaves. That liberation did not apply to Ona Judge, one of 153 slaves held by Martha Washington.

But Judge, it turned out, evaded the Washingtons’ dogged (and sometimes illegal) efforts to recapture her, and would live quietly in New Hampshire for another 50 years. Now her story — and the challenge it offers to the notion that Washington somehow transcended the seamy reality of slaveholding — is having its fullest airing yet…

Ms. Dunbar, the author of “Never Caught,” first came across Ona Judge in the late 1990s, when she was a graduate student at Columbia researching free black women in Philadelphia. One day in the archives, she noticed a 1796 newspaper ad offering $10 for the return of “a light Mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes and bushy hair” who had “absconded” from the president’s house.

“I said to myself: ‘Here I am, a scholar in this field. Why don’t I know about her?’” Ms. Dunbar recalled…

Read the entire article here.

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Portsmouth’s Ona Judge is famous at last

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States, Women on 2017-04-13 00:04Z by Steven

Portsmouth’s Ona Judge is famous at last

The Portsmouth Herald

J. Dennis Robinson

Recently thrust into celebrity, Ona Judge was enslaved by George and Martha Washington. Ona quietly escaped the President’s House in Philadelphia in 1796 and lived as a seamstress in Greenland, New Hampshire. Washington described the runaway in a newspaper as “a light mulatto girl, much freckled.” This illustration by Emily Arnold McCully appears on the cover of her children’s book, “The Escape of Oney Judge,” published by Scholastic Press.
[Courtesy photo]

It’s about time America learned her name. Enslaved by George and Martha Washington, a young Ona Judge fled to Portsmouth in 1796. A skilled seamstress, Ona Judge lived the rest of her long life in the shadows — impoverished, independent and defiant. Her presumed burial site remains obscure and unmarked on private land in nearby Greenland. But the story of a young black woman who resisted a president is finally being told — and told again.

Today you can read about Ona Judge (1773-1848) in The New York Times. You can hear her story on National Public Radio, watch her on a National Geographic special, or find her on popular websites like and CNN. Ona is featured in “Lives Bound Together,” a special exhibit of more than 300 enslaved Africans at Mount Vernon. She is portrayed by re-enactors from New Hampshire to Virginia, and her story is told at the site of the President’s House in Philadelphia, where she made her daring solo escape from the Washingtons at age 20.

The big news for Ona, and for American history, is the success of a runaway bestseller titled “Never Caught, The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.” Author Erica Armstrong Dunbar, examines the first president’s use of “human property” from the slave’s point of view…

Read the entire article here.

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Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge

Posted in Biography, Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Slavery, United States, Women on 2017-04-12 21:18Z by Steven

Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge

Atria (an imprint of Simon and Schuster)
February 2017
272 pages
Hardcover ISBN: 9781501126390
eBook ISBN: 9781501126437

Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Black Studies and History
University of Delaware

A startling and eye-opening look into America’s First Family, Never Caught is the powerful narrative of Ona Judge, George and Martha Washington’s runaway slave who risked everything to escape the nation’s capital and reach freedom.

When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation’s capital. In setting up his household he took Tobias Lear, his celebrated secretary and eight slaves, including Ona Judge, about whom little has been written. As he grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change he couldn’t get his arms around: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to circumvent the law. Every six months he sent the slaves back down south just as the clock was about to expire.

Though Ona Judge lived a life of relative comfort, the few pleasantries she was afforded were nothing compared to freedom, a glimpse of which she encountered first-hand in Philadelphia. So, when the opportunity presented itself, Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England. Yet freedom would not come without its costs.

At just twenty-two-years-old, Ona became the subject of an intense manhunt led by George Washington, who used his political and personal contacts to recapture his property.

With impeccable research, historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar weaves a powerful tale and offers fascinating new scholarship on how one young woman risked it all to gain freedom from the famous founding father.

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An interview with Henry Wiencek: Slaves and Slavery in George Washington’s World

Posted in Articles, History, Interviews, Media Archive, Slavery, Social Science, United States on 2010-01-06 18:54Z by Steven

An interview with Henry Wiencek: Slaves and Slavery in George Washington’s World

Common-Place: Common Reading
Volume 6, Number 4
July 2006

William Costin (c. 1780-1842), the Washingtons’ mixed-race grandson/nephew. He was the son of Ann Dandridge, enslaved half sister of Martha Washington, and Jacky Custis, Martha’s son. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Henry Wiencek is the author of the acclaimed “An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America” (2003), winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in history and the Best Book of 2003 award from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. He has also written The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White (1999), which received the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award. In the spirit of rereading, this issue’s Common Reading asks Wiencek to talk about his work on Washington and slavery and to reflect on some of the ways it revises received wisdom about the American past.
Common-place: It seems clear from “Imperfect God” that you learned a great deal from genealogists. For historians working inside the academy, this might seem striking. How was it that you came to be interested in genealogy as a way of addressing larger historical questions about race and slavery?

Henry Wiencek: When I researched my previous book, The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, I could not avoid genealogy and genealogists. That book focused on one extended family with a black side, a white side, and family genealogists on every side trying to reconstruct a lost/hidden past. In several instances I came across documents indicating hidden or forgotten blood ties between the whites and blacks. You can’t avoid finding that kind of information if you’re studying plantation families. It happened everywhere and the evidence is thick on the ground—wills, gifts of land, odd emancipations, payments for education, favored treatment for particular people. I had so many of these stories from Hairston documents and oral history that I couldn’t put them all into the book. And after the book came out more people called or wrote to me about other instances. The other part of this is you have to be careful in evaluating this information—not everything is at it seems.

When you encounter evidence of kinship between owners and slaves you have, first of all, learned something new about the complexity of their world, and next you are confronted with the question: did knowledge of his or her kinship to slaves influence the actions of an owner? Martha Washington‘s first father-in-law, John Custis, all but acknowledged his mixed-race son, freed him, and gave him a very generous bequest. In contrast, Martha held her own half sister in slavery. The existence of this half sister, Ann Dandridge, was one of the great shocks of my research, and I discovered her only because genealogists had written to Mount Vernon about Dandridge and their letters were in the files. I pursued the leads in that correspondence and came up with additional evidence. So through the work of genealogists I came up with information that completely changed our view of what slavery was like at Mount Vernon…

…As to “genealogy as a way of addressing larger historical questions about race and slavery”—genealogy teaches us that many white colonial families had mixed-race kin. It would be fascinating to consult Virginia‘s African American genealogists and see how many of them can trace their families back to leading white families such as the Carters, Lees, Byrds, Randolphs, et al. (Right now I can say “yes” to three of those names—I don’t know about the Byrds, but they’re related to the Custises, so I guess they’d be a “yes” too.) That would give us a sense of how closely entwined these leading families were with slaves. Reading the accounts of the very peculiar, very intense relationship between Landon Carter and his slave Nassau, I have wondered if they were half brothers. My point is that, in public statements, the white male leadership of colonial Virginia reviled miscegenation, and we have come to believe that they were genuinely revolted by race mixing. Then how could these same men so avidly practice it? If they were disgusted by mixed-race people, how could the masters and mistresses of the era staff their houses with mulattoes? Wouldn’t you expect mulattoes to be shunned, exiled? Jefferson is a prime example. He spoke forcefully against racial mixing, but his entire household staff consisted of mulatto and all-but-white slaves, many of whom were his relatives. My thinking is that, to some degree, this eighteenth-century racial-purity talk was smokescreen and rationalization for outsiders. It’s an extremely complex issue….

Read the entire interview here.

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