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Historian recounts courageous escape of Washingtons' slave

​Erica Armstrong Dunbar speaks at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

It was Saturday, May 21, 1796, when a young woman named Ona Judge — a slave in President George Washington’s official residence in Philadelphia — took what historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar calls “that final step” toward freedom.

“She ran away from the president’s house while the Washingtons were eating dinner,” said Dunbar, who is the Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Black American Studies and History at the University of Delaware. “And she would never return to that home.”

Dunbar tells Judge’s story in a new book, Never Caught, published Feb. 7 by Atria Books. Based on years of research, the book recounts Judge’s remarkable life and the lengths to which George and Martha Washington went in attempting to recapture her.

Judge (also called Oney) prepared for her escape with some careful planning, Dunbar found. She bought herself a new pair of shoes on the Washingtons’ account and, as the family got ready for a trip back to Mount Vernon, she packed her belongings as well. With help from the large community of free blacks in Philadelphia, Judge stored her belongings with someone before fleeing the president’s house.

She boarded a ship and was taken on a five-day journey to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where she would go on to marry, raise children and live for the next 50 years. But although she long outlived the Washingtons, who never managed to have her recaptured, Judge remained a fugitive and was never legally free.

“I chose the title of the book very deliberately,” Dunbar said. “What her life amounted to for nearly half a century was that she was simply never caught [and was] constantly looking over her shoulder for the entirety of her life.”

Thinking about what Judge’s life must have been like in those circumstances made Dunbar consider the lives of both enslaved and free black women and men of the time, which she describes as “hard, vulnerable and uncertain.”

“It makes us ask the question: How free is free when slavery exists around you?” she said.

Judge’s grit and determination, the qualities that allowed her to take the enormous risk of escaping from the new nation’s first president, also enabled her to avoid the Washingtons’ efforts to have her returned to them.

“Every time I think about her, I feel her strength,” Dunbar said. “A young black woman standing up to the president of the United States — I think a lot of people today can relate to that.”

Judge was only about 22 years old when she fled the president’s house, and both her youth and her gender made her an atypical runaway, especially a successful one. She also faced the problem of being a recognizable face, as she had often accompanied Martha Washington on errands and social calls.

Judge was a teenager when the Washingtons brought her with them from Mount Vernon to the North, living first in New York and then Philadelphia. That provides another unique perspective, Dunbar said, giving the reader “a snapshot of early America” as she travels to different cities.

“Through Ona Judge’s story, we get to see what the birth of this country looked like through the lives of the enslaved,” she said, adding that history books traditionally tell that story from the perspective of the founding fathers. “But what did it look like to their human property?”

How the book came about

Dunbar first saw Ona Judge’s name when she was researching her first book, A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City, published by Yale University Press in 2008. Studying archived newspapers one day, she noticed an ad seeking the return of Oney Judge, “a runaway slave from the House of the President.”

Dunbar was a historian specializing in 19th century black women, but she didn’t know Judge’s name or her story. And, she said, she was surprised that Washington would go to such lengths — the ads ran in at least two newspapers for about a week — to get just one of his many slaves returned.

“I thought: Who is this person, and why don’t I know her?” she said. “I knew I’d come back to her sometime.”

When her first book was finished, Dunbar immediately delved into Judge’s story. Records were scarce, but her research benefited from George Washington’s own careful diaries and business accounts and from two interviews Judge gave late in her life to abolitionist newspapers.

In writing Never Caught, Dunbar made a decision to tell the story in a way that both scholars and non-academics could appreciate.

It’s a thoroughly researched and documented historical work, she points out, but she wanted to tell Judge’s fascinating story in a narrative way to reach a wider audience.

“I wanted to pull the reader in, to hold onto the reader,” Dunbar said. “I felt like this was a really compelling story, and I wanted it to have as large a readership as possible.

“I want Ona Judge’s name to be a household name. The way we know Frederick Douglass, the way we know Harriet Tubman, we should know Ona Judge. And she predated all of them by decades.”

Never Caught has inspired rave reviews from historians and others, media notice in such outlets as The New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer, and requests for Dunbar to speak at venues including Mount Vernon, where she gave a presentation on Feb. 15.

Eric Foner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Fiery Trial and Gateway to Freedom, calls Never Caught “a fascinating and moving account” of Ona Judge.

“Beautifully written and utilizing previously untapped sources, it sheds new light both on the father of our country and on the intersections of slavery and freedom in the flawed republic he helped to found,” Foner said.

For Dunbar, a particular honor was the invitation she received to speak on Feb. 8 at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. She said she felt honored for herself but also for Judge.

“I’m just glad that telling her story will be part of the archive of history in that magnificent building,” she said. “She deserves it. She deserves to be there. She deserves to be talked about there and across the country and, hopefully, across the world.”

Public humanities at UD

With a goal of writing a scholarly book that would also be accessible to general readers, Dunbar said the timing of Never Caught seems “perfectly matched with the synergy we have right now at the University of Delaware.”

UD has been developing and emphasizing its already strong focus on public humanities, and particularly African American public humanities, and material culture studies.

The goal of the public humanities is to help such scholarly studies reach a wider audience across various platforms, from traditional books and articles to social media and digital spaces. Scholars trained in public humanities might work in academia, but they might also work in public archives, libraries or museums.

UD’s recognized strengths in museum studies, material culture and art conservation, its ongoing initiatives such as the national Colored Conventions Project and innovative faculty members in the Department of Black American Studies and other areas of the humanities are all combining to create renewed enthusiasm for public humanities, Dunbar said.

She also cited efforts to train doctoral students in new ways that will support both traditional academic teaching careers and in projects and careers that advance the public profile of the humanities.

Last year, UD received a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support those initiatives through the agency’s “Next Generation PhD” effort to broad career preparation for doctoral students.

“I think we’re destined for greatness at the University of Delaware, if we’re not there already,” Dunbar said. “I think that we have such opportunity and excitement around these initiatives, and I’m glad that Never Caught will be a part of that.”

Article by Ann Manser; photos by Andre Smith

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