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Telling the Story of Ona Judge

Erica Armstrong Dunbar can trace her interest in African American history to the winter of 1977 when she was in first grade. At their parents’ request, she and her sister spent eight days watching the hugely popular TV mini-series “Roots” as a family. 

Although she certainly didn’t realize it at the time, this groundbreaking dramatization of slavery “helped shape my professional trajectory,” Professor Dunbar told the Chapin audience on January 28, explaining that she has devoted her career to bringing to light the African American experience, especially women and enslaved people in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. In fact, she is among a small number of African American women scholars who study black life, culture, and gender up through the Civil War. 

Since 2007, Chapin has enjoyed a vigorous partnership with The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which fosters the understanding of American history through educational programming. As this year’s Gilder Lehrman Lecturer, the distinguished Professor Dunbar -- the Charles and Mary Beard Professor of History at Rutgers University -- framed an engaging and informative talk around her insightful book, “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge,” which was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award. 

Professor Dunbar also shared her young readers’ edition, “Never Caught: The Story of Ona Judge” (with co-author Kathleen Van Cleve), which resonated in particular with the Class 7 students in the audience who read the book in their Humanities classes. Class 11 students also attended this enthralling presentation, along with many other members of the Chapin community. 

About 20 years ago, while conducting research for her first book (“A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City”), Professor Dunbar made an astonishing discovery. Probing microfiche newspaper clippings for clues about domestic life in eighteenth-century Philadelphia, “up popped an advertisement for a runaway slave,” she reported, adding that the flyer stated that the fugitive had “absconded from the household of the President.”

“I said, What?” Professor Dunbar recalled with a chuckle. Intrigued, she was determined to find out more about this mysterious woman and the circumstances around her brave escape, a monumentally difficult task given the fact that marginalized people like slaves were rarely mentioned in historic documents. Due to her indefatigable research, Ona Judge (1773-1848) became “the most interesting subject I have ever encountered,” adding that she “felt a deep spiritual connection” to Ms. Judge.

Launching into a story unlike any other, the speaker urged her listeners to “walk with me to the end of the eighteenth century.” She picked up her copy of “Never Caught,” and began to read from the foreword: “In the midst of the promises of spring, Ona Judge, a young black slave, received devastating news. She was to leave Philadelphia, a city that had become her home. Judge was to travel back to her birthplace of Virginia and prepare to be bequeathed to her owner’s granddaughter.”

Her “owner’s granddaughter” was none other than Eliza Parke Custis Law, the headstrong grandchild of Martha Washington. Although George and Martha Washington had no children together, Professor Dunbar pointed out, Martha had four offspring and several grandchildren from her first marriage, including first-born Elizabeth (called Eliza).

Working in President Washington’s Mount Vernon household was one Ona Judge, the daughter of Betty, a black slave belonging to the President, and Andrew Judge, a white indentured servant. When Washington was elected President in 1789, Professor Dunbar continued, Ms. Judge, a talented seamstress, was chosen to join a small group of slaves and servants to accompany the Washingtons to New York City, the temporary capital. 

“Ona left all that she knew,” said Professor Dunbar, reading another passage from her book. The following year, she was uprooted once again, this time to Philadelphia, where the capital had been relocated. She spent the next six years tending to Martha Washington’s personal wardrobe, a less arduous role than working in the kitchen or field. She appears to have settled into a fairly stable routine, but it wouldn’t last. 

One day, the Attorney General paid a visit to President Washington, bringing him news that would transform Ona Judge’s life forever. According to Pennsylvania law, he reported that it was no longer permitted to hold slaves indefinitely. Some slaves, aware of this new rule, threatened to leave their masters.

Instead of allowing 22-year-old Ms. Judge to go free, as was her right, Washington decided to give her to his engaged step-granddaughter, Eliza, as a wedding present. Fearing an enslaved life of unspeakable hardship, “Ona makes the amazing decision to escape in 1796,” exclaimed Professor Dunbar. Aided by a network of free blacks, she was able to board a ship bound for New Hampshire and embark on a new life as a former slave. 

Meanwhile, President Washington, enraged that his wife’s slave had managed to escape the family confines, went to tremendous lengths to try to apprehend her. As the book’s title emphatically declares, Ona Judge was “never caught.” When she passed away in 1848 at age 75, Ms. Judge had been an underground fugitive for half a century. However, in her old age, she did agree to an interview with a Philadelphia newspaper. “At that moment in her life, Ona was ready to be heard,” noted Professor Dunbar. “She always wanted to be remembered.” 

“How should we situate Ona Judge’s story within George Washington’s legacy?” one young attendee asked, one of many thought-provoking questions the students posed to Professor Dunbar during her incredible presentation. “Well, I think Ona does a good job upending that mythology,” she said. “She cracked the case wide open.”

Heralding her “courage, keen intelligence and deep respect for history,” Head of School Dr. Patricia Hayot thanked this warm and accomplished speaker for sharing her transformative scholarship -- and the remarkable Ona Judge -- with the Chapin community. “You have moved all of us in powerful and important ways.”