She Was George Washington's Slave—Until She'd Had Enough

Oney Judge escaped and remained free the rest of her life
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 7, 2017 5:06 PM CST
Updated Feb 8, 2017 12:33 AM CST
Meet the Slave Who Escaped From George Washington
A display tells the story of Oney Judge, also known as Ona Judge, in Philadelphia.   (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)

It appears the world is about to get familiar with the fascinating story of Oney Judge. As the New York Times explains, Judge (also known as Ona) was one of George Washington's slaves until she managed to escape. The president took this as a personal affront—he huffed at her "ingratitude"—and tried to recapture her for years, right up until his death. Washington famously freed his slaves in his will, but Judge technically belonged to Martha Washington and thus wouldn't have been affected. Judge's story hasn't been widely told, but it is now included in an exhibition at Mount Vernon and is also the subject of a book, Never Caught, by the University of Delaware's Erica Armstrong Dunbar. "We have the famous fugitives, like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass," says Dunbar. "But decades before them, Ona Judge did this. I want people to know her story."

And quite a story it is: Judge was born into slavery at Mount Vernon, and she traveled with the first couple first to New York and then to Philadelphia when Washington became president. It was in Philadelphia that Judge learned she was to be given to Martha Washington's granddaughter and re-shipped south. Instead, she slipped away from the presidential mansion with the help of free blacks and made it to New Hampshire. She would marry and have three children there, and though she lived in near poverty, she expressed no regrets in two interviews before her death in 1848, at around age 75, reports Washington, for his part, tried to skirt federal rules on the recapture of slaves and enlisted a customs employee to get her back, reports the New York Post. Judge, however, evaded all attempts at recapture. (A kids' book on Washington's slaves didn't go over well.)

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