Her name was Ona (Oney) Judge, and she was a slave of the first President and First Lady of the United States, George and Martha Washington. Judge brilliantly eluded her masters and maintained her freedom until her death, even though they knew where she was hiding. They pursued her by asking others for help retrieving their runaway slave, but Judge remained a free woman.
Judge was the product of an interracial union; her mother, Betty, was a black seamstress and a slave on the plantation. Her father, Andrew Judge, was a tailor from England who served as a white indentured servant. He had earned his freedom and left the plantation to begin life as a farmer. From the age of about 10, Judge became a “house slave” and grew up in the manor house in New York with the Washingtons.
She later traveled to Philadelphia and stayed with the Washingtons in the Executive Mansion, which was the equivalent of The White House. It was in Philadelphia that she became good friends with many free blacks. Even as a young woman, Judge noted that she was considered a minority, as there were few slaves present there.
When she was older, she assisted the First Lady as her personal body servant, helping her dress, in addition to multiple laborious tasks. Judge had become an expert in needlework, much like her mother; she greatly contributed to the Washington’s’ household because of her talent. Washington even referred to her as the “perfect Mistress of her needle.” She was talented, but she also knew she was still a slave.
Judge may have had a place to sleep, and food to eat, but she wanted more: Her freedom. The Washingtons had decided Judge would become the slave of their newly married eldest granddaughter as a “gift” for the bride. Judge knew there was no way she would ever taste freedom if she stepped foot on a plantation in Virginia, so she planned her escape. It was a Saturday evening in May 1796.
Judge quietly stepped out of the Executive Mansion while the Washingtons enjoyed their evening meal, and she never returned. She had been recognized by at least one person who knew the Washingtons and told them where she was. Although they implored everyone they thought could seize her to return her home, she was never apprehended or forced. Every person Judge came in contact with were convinced of her need for “complete freedom,” and just let her be.
The book “Never Caught” captures the life of Ona Judge and is a new release written by Erica Armstrong Dunbar, and published by Simon & Schuster. You can purchase it here.
If you were faced with the choice of remaining a slave, or taking a chance at freedom, what would you have done? Let’s discuss here or on Twitter: @lcarterwriter.