Erica Armstrong Dunbar Talks Never Caught, the True Story of George Washington’s Runaway Slave

Books Features Erica Armstrong Dunbar
Erica Armstrong Dunbar Talks Never Caught, the True Story of George Washington’s Runaway Slave

On May 21, 1796, an enslaved 22-year-old woman named Ona Judge slipped out of her owners’ home in Philadelphia and into an illicit freedom. Runaways had become so common for America’s slave-owning gentry that three years before Judge’s escape, they pressured one of their own—the nation’s first president—into signing the Fugitive Slave Act. The law established guidelines by which slave owners could pursue their slaves into northern states that were moving away from slavery and into a wage labor system. Whether or not she knew the law’s specifics, Judge understood the manifold challenges she was facing by leaving Philadelphia behind. After all, the couple who claimed her as their property was the most powerful duo in the young nation. Their names were George and Martha Washington.

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Historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar has written a book that, in detailing Ona Judge’s extraordinary life, illuminates how George Washington* remained committed to the institution of slavery—so much so that he spent years trying to capture Judge and return her to Mount Vernon, where she had been born and raised. Judge was Martha Washington’s* legal property, and Martha’s wealth—heavily concentrated in the humans she claimed—far exceeded her husband’s.

Dunbar first came across Judge’s name while conducting archival research for her debut book, A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City, an academic study of free black women in the 19th century. While scanning the pages of a Philadelphia periodical, Dunbar discovered an advertisement announcing that a “light Mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes, and bushy black hair” had run away from the president’s home.

“Her name and the situation behind the advertisement were more than intriguing. It seemed a little odd to me,” Dunbar said in a telephone interview with Paste. “Who is this person and what happened to them—and why don’t I know this?”

Dunbar considered including Judge’s story in A Fragile Freedom, but she decided against it in favor of later creating a project devoted to Judge’s life. That project became Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Dunbar’s sophomore book released in February.

Ona Maria Judge was born in 1773 to Betty, one of Martha’s most trusted slaves, and Andrew Judge, an English-born white man who had served the Washingtons as an indentured servant. In 1789, when George was unanimously chosen by the U.S. Senate to become President of the United States, Judge was among a small group of slaves who accompanied the “first family” to New York, the nation’s capital at the time. But it was when the capital and the president were relocated to Philadelphia that Judge grew aware of the differences in the public’s acceptance of slavery between Northern and Southern states. Pennsylvania law, Dunbar writes in Never Caught, “required the emancipation of all adult slaves who were brought into the commonwealth for more than a period of six months.”

“I don’t want us to paint the image of the benevolent North who were against slavery because they understood the moral bankruptcy behind it,” Dunbar said. “There were of course people who did feel that way, but I would also argue it was the economy. A wage labor system that does not work with a system of slavery alongside it would perhaps force some to be against the institution of slavery.”

Whatever the Pennsylvania law’s roots, it provided the Washingtons with a distinct problem. Their wealth as landed gentry was directly tied to the people they claimed as slaves, and emancipation would cause them financial ruin. After consulting with the nation’s first Attorney General—himself a slave owner who had lost slaves to the Pennsylvania law—the Washingtons turned their legal problem into a logistical one, devising a system to cycle their slaves back and forth to Mount Vernon before their six months were up. Dunbar highlights George’s correspondence with his secretary to show how anxious the president was to preserve his—and his wife’s—wealth as Virginian farmers.

“I am not a [George] Washington biographer,” Dunbar said. “But he happens to intersect with this woman I’ve chosen to focus on, and I think it’s great. It shows us just how complicated slavery was not just for regular folks, for enslaved people themselves and for fugitives and free blacks, but also for slave owners, who for various reasons by the 1790s were thinking differently about slave ownership.”

While George may have held misgivings about slavery—culminating in his decision to emancipate his slaves after his death—Judge’s escape after five years spent cycling between Mount Vernon and Philadelphia presented him with a problem requiring a discreet solution. At the time, he was distracted by the 1796 election and the coming succession of John Adams to the presidency.

“The last thing that [George] Washington wanted to do was have much attention paid to him running after an enslaved young woman,” Dunbar said.

Judge had fled Philadelphia by sea and settled in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where she passed as a free woman. Dunbar found evidence that Judge married a black sailor named Jack Staines, and their marriage announcement was printed just inches away from a newspaper column about George’s farewell address to the nation.

“It’s [already] amazing that she resisted him and got married, but then she’s kind of contesting him in print,” Dunbar said.

Yet marriage didn’t bring Judge respite from her life as a fugitive. Shortly after her arrival in Portsmouth, Judge was spotted on the streets by Elizabeth Langdon, the daughter of George’s associate Senator John Langdon. This catalyzed George’s first attempt to “recover” Judge, in which he deputized a local customs official to approach her and argue that her life on Mount Vernon would be far better than life as a free woman. (Ironically, this circumvented the Fugitive Slave Act, which called for a judge to sign off on the recovery of a runaway slave.) Judge told the customs official that she would meet him—and the ship that would return her to Virginia—at the docks, but she never showed. In his letter to the president admitting to his failure, the customs official sympathized with Judge, even proposing that George consider gradually emancipating his slaves.

But George wasn’t finished yet. He tried twice more to recover Judge, first with a similar plea to “reason” and then with chains. By George’s third attempt, Judge had fled Portsmouth for the small town of Greenland, eight miles outside of Portsmouth, where she would live out the remainder of her long life.

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“Of course we want a happy ending for compelling histories like Ona’s story,” Dunbar said. Reality, however, held a different course for Judge, who experienced daily indignities as a domestic laborer and saw her husband and then her children die one by one.

“In the book, I never use the word free or freedom,” Dunbar said. “Because Judge wasn’t that. She lived as a fugitive for half a century. And what she experienced, this was what life was like for the majority of free black people at that time in America. And that’s what I wanted people to understand. To, in some ways, challenge the myth of the North as the land of milk and honey and opportunity.”

“What Ona’s story tells us is not just the fragility of a fugitive’s life, but of all black people’s lives at that moment,” Dunbar continued. “Because you have to ask the question: How free is free if slavery exists right next door? What does your freedom mean if, at any moment, you can be captured against your will?”

As for George, Dunbar thinks that his response to Judge’s escape goes against the theory that he eventually viewed slavery as evil. “It’s convenient to think that [he] knew slavery was wrong and therefore freed his slaves, but it’s clear that he was never at any moment willing to live without the comforts of slavery in his lifetime. He wanted to make sure that the comfort and luxury that came with human bondage were present for his wife.”

George, Dunbar notes in her book, did not truly emancipate his slaves upon his death, but rather ordered that they be freed upon Martha’s death. While Martha would emancipate George’s slaves before her death, she refused to do the same for her own slaves.

“We know that [George] Washington had no direct heirs,” Dunbar said, “and I can’t help but think that it would have been a much more difficult decision to emancipate all of his enslaved people—a tremendous amount of wealth—had he had children of his own. Without children, he was able to do what maybe others had contemplated. And while that’s worth mentioning, I don’t necessarily believe that makes him the hero we all want to believe him to be.”

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Although Never Caught chronicles events that are centuries old, the book has garnered attention for its relevance to current American politics. “I had absolutely no idea that this book would come out at a moment of such turbulence…but I really can’t think of a better moment for a book to arrive where a 22-year old black woman resists the President of the United States. If that isn’t a kind of poignant and important history lesson for all of us, I don’t know what is.”

“If a woman of no means—who is literally considered the property of Martha Washingtond—stands up and resists, it makes you ask the question: If Ona Judge could do it, what are the rest of us doing?” Dunbar added. “We have to realize that to resist at moments that are the most dangerous and difficult puts almost more power into that action. It’s one thing to resist when the stakes are relatively low. But when you resist and everything is riding on the line—that means something.”

*For clarity, George Washington is referred to as “George” and Martha Washington as “Martha” in this article.

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