Nov 13, 2017
This new book, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar reads more like a thriller than a typical history book. Ona Judge, a slave, ran away from one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the country – George Washington, who was President of the United States at the time she fled.
Ona Judge was born on George Washington's tobacco plantation in Mt. Vernon, Virginia. By the age of sixteen she had become Martha Washington's most prized domestic slave. She did Martha's hair, helped her get dressed, and did her personal laundry. She was excused from cooking and household cleaning. In the eyes of the Washingtons, she lived in luxury.
Ona Judge put up a happy front for the Washingtons – as she was required to do. But behind the scenes she secretly built bonds with free black laborers and got in contact with Philadelphia's abolition movement. She escaped and lived in free black communities in New Hampshire. She learned to read. She became a domestic worker – doing all the things she had been "excused from" while enslaved.
President George Washington, so-called “Father of Our Country,” had signed the country’s first Fugitive Slave Act in 1793. The law made it a federal crime to give shelter, or in any way assist fugitive slaves.
As a slave-owner, Washington used every means he had to find Judge, his personal property: runaway slave advertisements in newspapers, spies and slave catchers and threats against her family who were still enslaved.
Eventually Ona Judge would be found. But George Washington was still in the public eye and wanted her back quietly. An agent of Washington’s offered her a compromise: Return “voluntarily” to enslavement, face no punishment, and be freed upon Washington’s death. She pretended to go along with the scheme. When she got word that she was about to be taken by force, she slipped out of town in the middle of the night – starting over, yet again in a new town.
Ona Judge lived into her seventies. She was never caught. Towards the end of her life, she granted interviews that were published in two different abolitionist newspapers.
Through her eyes we see how slaves built this country – and how they resisted building it – from the very moment this country was founded.