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NEVER CAUGHT by Erica Armstrong Dunbar


Ona Judge, the Washingtons, and the Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave

by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Pub Date: Feb. 7th, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-5011-2639-0
Publisher: 37 Ink/Simon & Schuster

The story of a favored slave of the Washingtons who had the “impudence” to flee a life of benevolent servitude.

A runaway slave who happened to be among the household of the first president of the United States, Ona Judge Staines (1773-1848) shared her break for freedom nearly 50 years after the fact in an account in the May 1845 issue of the Granite Freeman. Dunbar (Black Studies and History/Univ. of Delaware; A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City, 2008) unearthed an advertisement for the runaway slave and became determined to tell her story—and she tells it well. A “dower” slave—i.e., she was the property of Martha Washington’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis—Ona was born in Mount Vernon, the product of a favored house seamstress, Betty, and a white indentured servant, Andrew Judge. At age 15, Ona, slender, fair of complexion, and a good seamstress, was chosen among the few household slaves out of hundreds to make the trek to the temporary capital of New York City, where Washington had just been sworn in as the new president of the nascent republic. She would mingle with the free blacks of the bustling city, and, later in Philadelphia, when the capital was moved there, she was responsible for over six years for Martha’s wardrobe, a role that relieved her of the drudgeries of kitchen and field work. In Philadelphia, there was a growing abolition movement, and when it was decided by the Washingtons that Ona was going to be given as a wedding present to the first lady’s objectionable granddaughter, Ona had had enough. On May 21, 1796, she slipped out of the executive mansion in Philadelphia, boarded a transport to New Hampshire (probably with help from the free black community), and started a new life there—but not without being hounded by Washington’s slave hunters.

A startling, well-researched slave narrative that seriously questions the intentions of our first president.