Guest Review: Never Caught: Ona Judge, the Washingtons, and the Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave

Guest reviewer Shana L. Haines is an Assistant Professor of English at Tidewater Community College in Portsmouth, Virginia. She is currently a Ph.D student in American Studies at William and Mary focusing on Race, Law, and Literature. She has her J.D. from Boston University School of Law and her Masters in British and American Literature from Hunter College.

Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Caught: Ona Judge, the Washingtons, and the Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017).

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-11-19-43-pmOn May 21, 1796, as George and Martha Washington ate their supper in the Philadelphia Executive Mansion, their twenty-two year old house slave, Ona Judge, walked out of the house and into freedom. With the help of the free black community in Philadelphia, Judge made her way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where the free black community and white supporters provided refuge.

One would expect the fatherly and compassionate George Washington of Hamilton or the stately Washington staring out from Mt. Rushmore over the South Dakota landscape would respond by—well, the Washingtons as slaveholders aren’t a topic that has had entered general discussion in the American collective consciousness. He’s the Revolutionary War hero, the elder statesman, the first President of the United States of America. Through Ona Judge’s story of flight and freedom, however, Dunbar presents us with another Washington; a Washington willing to abuse his office and power to hunt another human being. Even more revealing is how Judge’s enslavement and subsequent flight underscores Martha Washington’s unwavering support of slavery and the outrage that fueled her husband’s pursuit of Judge.

Dunbar’s Foreword offers Ona Judge’s biography as the reintroduction of Ona Judge. Indeed, Judge’s story has long been an interesting footnote, paragraph, or article. Unlike many references to Judge, Dunbar’s comprehensive treatment presents Judge as a fully fleshed out human being grappling with the dehumanization of slavery and the complexities of freedom. For both scholars of Early American slavery and the general public, Judge is being reintroduced as an important figure in our understanding of Early American slavery and resistance. Through Dunbar’s empathetic and well-researched biography, the woman whose safety and freedom in eighteenth-century America depended upon remaining hidden, is finally given prominence in her own story rather than as aside to the Washingtons.

Never Caught opens with the weather. The tumultuous weather of June 1773 included hot, humid days typical of the area for that time of year, but also snow. The weather reflected the unsettling events at Mt. Vernon, the Washington’s estate. Martha Washington’s daughter, George Washington’s step-daughter, Patsy, died. A few days later, Ona Maria Judge was born (9). Both Ona and her mother Betty served Martha Washington as favored house servants until George Washington’s presidential election required the Washingtons to relocate to the nation’s capital in New York in 1789. They took sixteen-year old Ona with them.

Little is known about Judge’s life prior to her escape, but Dunbar paints a picture of a world very different from the slower paced and sheltered existence Judge would have lived in Mt. Vernon. For six years Judge served as Martha Washington’s personal attendant, first in New York City and later in Philadelphia where the Washingtons resided while Washington, D.C. was being prepared to be the nation’s capital. In both New York and Philadelphia, Dunbar notes that Judge would have encountered a sizable free black population, abolitionists, free white servants, and ideas of freedom. Additionally, as a trusted slave, Judge was permitted at times to go the theater and other cultural attractions unattended with other household slaves (76). She had sufficient food to eat, a wardrobe befitting a slave to the President, and a roof over her head. And thus, her escape from what George and Martha Washington believed was well-cushioned slavery was not only an embarrassment, but a personal betrayal (138).

Washington employed slave catchers, bounty hunters, friends, and political connections in futile attempts to retrieve his property.Dunbar uses runaway slave notices, Washington’s own diaries and letters, and archival information about slave laws, politics, and abolitionist practices to weave a tense and suspenseful tale of Judge’s game of cat and mouse. Within this fugitive slave narrative is also embedded the emotional toll of separation from family and the physical and economic realities of day-to-day living for black women in the early republic. As America was wrestling with how to implement its Constitutional principles, Judge was forging marriage, motherhood, and community through resilience and courage. Despite the travails of freedom and the heartbreak of separation, Judge remained firm that she would “‘rather suffer death’ than return to slavery” (197).

Unlike Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs, Ona Judge did not write a contemporaneous slave narrative. As a fugitive, it was in her best interest to not only remain hidden, but also protect the people who ushered her to safety and gave her refuge. The strength of Dunbar’s account lies in her ability to use Judge’s 1845 interview in the Granite Freeman and 1847 interview in the Liberator, the only recorded interviews Judge gave about her life, in addition to manuscripts, letters, journals and approximately 130 secondary sources to draw the most comprehensive portrait of Ona Judge to date. Dunbar has convincingly filled in the gaps and immersed us in the life of Ona Judge and produced a text notable for its contribution to African-American Studies, Early American Studies, American Studies, Race and Law, Women & Gender Studies as well as appeal to the general reader.

4 responses

  1. Thanks for the review, Shana.

    I picked up a copy of the book at AHA and have enjoyed going through it. I discussed with my students today the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and spent some time discussing Judge. I was very happy to recommend Dunbar’s book to those interested in reading more.

  2. Pingback: George Washington Relentlessly Pursued Runaway Slave | Exploring American Politics with Jim Buie

  3. Pingback: George Washington Relentlessly Pursued Runaway Slave – Teaching History's Slender Threads, Including 'What Ifs', Almosts, Alternatives and Turning Points


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