Why We Celebrate the Woman Who Escaped George Washington

Ona Judge somehow escaped life as a slave of the first president of the United States. This is her story.

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Ona Judge, History's Most Badass Seamstress

What do you do when you're being enslaved by the most powerful woman in the country and are forced to comb her hair, wash her clothes, listen to her problems, and be at her beck and call all day and all night long? If you're Ona Judge, a 22-year-old slave of George and Martha Washington, you run.

One night, as the Washingtons ate dinner, Ona slipped out, caught a ship to New Hampshire, and never went back.

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Ona, who also went by Oney, started working as a maid and seamstress in the Washingtons' Virginia house when she was just 10, and Martha liked her so much that she quickly became one of the most important slaves on the estate.

Martha Washington had a reputation for being a sympathetic mistress, but she also never questioned the morality of slavery and never freed her 153 slaves.
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When Washington became president, and the couple moved—first to New York and then to Philadelphia—the teenage Ona was one of the few slaves they brought with them. Ona mingled with some of the North's thousands of free blacks: she saw where they worked and went to church, she made friends and glimpsed freedom. One night, with their help, as the Washingtons ate dinner, Ona slipped out, caught a ship to New Hampshire, and never went back.

The Real Stories of Slavery

I've always had a problem with the word "slave." Obviously, I have a problem with the institution of slavery, but I'm talking about the fact that we use this word to describe the people—people with personalities and talents and loves—who were subjugated by slavery. We say they "belonged" to their "owners," but in reality, they were people—maybe seamstresses or fathers or dancers—who belonged only to themselves. Why would we still label them as slaves?

In part, I think it's because we don't know many of their stories: even though Ona, one of the country's most high-profile bondwomen, has been written about a lot (there's even a Drunk History about her), her story is usually told as part of Washington's story. But the new book by Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, is a book about Ona and her story of taking her life back.

Playing It Cool

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Ona's mixed-race background—her father was a white indentured servant—was probably one of the reasons she was given the house job of personal attendant. She didn't have to do any farm work or cleaning, she probably wore decent clothes, she ran errands in town on her own, and she was even given money to attend the circus.

She had to be invisible and yet totally available, she had to appear pleasant while being a prisoner.

But, as Dunbar points out, her job was emotionally grueling. She had to be invisible and yet totally available, she had to appear pleasant while being a prisoner, and she had to be emotionally supportive to her mistress, who was often stressed out.

She was so good at this work that when she did escape, the Washingtons were stunned by her "ingratitude." According to the advertisement they took out offering a reward for her capture, "there was no suspicion of her going off, and she left without the least provocation." They even concocted a story—she was seduced by a Frenchman (seriously)—to try to explain it.

George Washington Was Kind of a Dick

Just to be clear: George and Martha Washington kept 276 slaves. And he signed the Fugitive Slave Act, which forced even free states to return slaves to their owners, meaning that there was now no freedom for people who got away from their captors.

It gets worse. When the Washingtons were living in Pennsylvania—which granted freedom to anyone who resided in the state for more than six months—George and Martha rotated out their slaves so their Pennsylvania residency would lapse. And then there's that time when George Washington needed dentures, and he tried to get teeth—teeth—from the people he enslaved.

Ona Judge: Never Caught

After Ona escaped, Washington was obsessed with getting her back. He sent people to get her, even forcibly, but because of her determination and a strong community of free blacks and pro-abolition whites, she was able to hide out and outwit him each time.

Ona married a seaman in New Hampshire and had three children. She worked for low wages as a maid and seamstress. She taught herself how to read and write and joined a church, both of which were empowering for her. Although she and her children, because of the Fugitive Slave Act, were technically fugitives, she found her freedom.

When asked by abolitionist newspapers if she regretted leaving the Washingtons since she struggled so much to get by, she responded emphatically, "No, I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means."

Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar (Atria Books), $26, powells.com.

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