February 07, 2017
For many of the United States' Founding Fathers, the largest stain on their records is slavery. That includes George Washington. Washington did provide for his slaves to be freed in his will, and Martha Washington freed his slaves (not hers) upon his death in 1799, but the fact remains that the country's first president was a slaveholder for most of his life.
Among Washington's slaves was Ona Judge, who was freed in Philadelphia, relentlessly pursued for recapture by Washington and is the subject of the new book, “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge."
As The New York Times notes, Judge's story has been examined by scholars before. But much of the previous research uses her tale to examine Washington's evolving position on slavery, while "Never Caught" focuses on the experiences of the slaves.
Written by University of Delaware history professor Erica Armstrong Dunbar, "Never Caught" combines the already-told tale of Judge along with "vivid descriptions of the physical and emotional conditions early American slaves faced," the New York Post writes.
Judge was a personal assistant to Martha Washington, helping her dress and accompanying her to social events. Born on the Washingtons' Mount Vernon estate in 1773, she was a teenager when Washington was sworn in as the nation's first president in 1789.
Judge was part of a small group of slaves who accompanied Martha Washington to New York City after the inauguration to join her husband and again when the capital was moved to Philly.
The move to Philly created a problem for the Washingtons when it came to their slaves and eventually led to Judge's freedom. Here's a summary via the Post:
While New York law condemned all slaves within the state to a lifetime of bondage, any slave who was brought into Pennsylvania would be granted freedom after six months, which the president did not realize until nearly the last moment. While Washington was on a tour of the southern states in the spring of 1791, his personal secretary, Tobias Lear, wrote to inform him of a visit from the attorney general, Edmund Randolph, whose own slaves had simply declared their freedom and left.
Washington was sure that state law didn’t apply to him, but just in case he had Martha begin planning a trip to Mount Vernon — not letting the slaves know, of course, the real reason they were headed back to Virginia.
Refusing to return to Virginia, Ona walked out of the Executive Mansion on the evening of May 21. The mansion’s steward, Frederick Kitt, placed ads in Philadelphia papers offering a $10 reward for the return of the “light Mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes, and bushy black hair . . . slender, and delicately made, about 20 years of age.” By then, however, she was already on a boat to Portsmouth, NH.
At the time, Philadelphia was home to a growing community of freed black slaves, the Times notes. Members of that community helped Judge escape during a presidential dinner.
Washington would twice try to recapture Judge, once using a federal customs officer to try and bring her back discreetly — breaking the fugitive slave law he himself had signed — and again shortly before his death through another person in August 1799.
Both attempts were foiled when Judge was tipped off.
If you're interested in reading more about Judge's story, you can order "Never Caught" here.