An Unsung Heroine Has Her Day

A new book tells a little-known slave story

It was difficult enough to escape the bonds of slavery in Colonial America, but imagine how tough it would be for a young African woman when your “owners” are the first president and first lady of the United States.

That was the situation of Ona Judge, a favored house slave of George and Martha Washington, who not only escaped, but evaded their tenacious pursuit of her that lasted until the ends of their lives. Her escape was so successful that she almost disappeared from the record of history, but for a few advertisements seeking her capture and return and some interviews in abolitionist publications of the day.

New Hampshire, with its curious independence on display even in those early years of our nation, proved to be a helpful collaborator for Judge, who remained at large here until her death in 1848 (nearly a half century after both George and Martha passed away).

But for her final escape, this time from the anonymity of the past, she had a true ally in meticulous researcher and renowned scholar Erica Armstrong Dunbar, professor of black American studies and history at the University of Delaware.

Dunbar was studying the lives of black women in the North for her first book, “Fragile Freedom,” when she came across an 18th-century newspaper notice offering a $10 reward for the return of a slave from the president’s house and that included the name “Oney Judge.”

“I thought, ‘here I am studying the lives of black women in the North and I don’t know this story.’ I could not walk away,” says Dunbar.

And so began an eight-year journey of piecing together the life of Ona Judge. She assimilated the written records and probed into the Washingtons’ slave holdings, including the fact that the First Couple had managed to evade then-capital city Philadelphia’s anti-slavery laws by rotating slaves to and from their Mount Vernon home every six months.

When Judge’s trail led to the Granite State, Dunbar followed, initially meeting with Portsmouth guru of African-American history Valerie Cunningham and finally arriving at a spot on the border of the Seacoast towns of Greenland  and Stratham where Judge spent her final years in the home of a free black family. It’s also the place where Judge is most likely buried, says Dunbar.

It’s private land in a residential district now, so the trip was a kind of spirit-journey for her. She was aided by a local real estate agent who shares the fascination with the story, but was surprised to learn that a half-mile walk through poison ivy-infested underbrush was required. “I’m a city slicker,” she says, “wearing flip flops and a skirt,” but she added a pair of socks she had in her purse and gamely followed.

“When you do historical biography and spend so much time tracking lives, you have to know where they ended up,” says Dunbar. “For so many enslaved people, you simply don’t know.” When she arrived at the densely wooded site, she describes what she felt as “a release.” It was a conclusion to her years of research, true, but also a personal quest. “To finally know where she is, to experience that kind of quiet she knew and experience what she saw and smelled every day in the latter years of her life — it was emotional and propelled me to finish the manuscript.”

The manuscript is now available in book form, highly readable and full of insights into the sketchy details of America’s past. It also provides a unique viewpoint on the developing cultural character of New Hampshire, where slavery was legal until 1857, and where the restless spirits of Bondage and Freedom lived side by side, often in the same household.

Dunbar will return to New Hampshire on March 5 to participate in a series of events beginning at 12:30 p.m. with a tour of the Governor John Langdon House. Following will be a live history performance with actress Gwendolyn Quezaire-Presutti portraying Judge, and the day will culminate with a talk and book signing by the author.

The event is free and open to the public, but you must reserve your space by calling (603) 436-8433. Other events are planned for Concord and Peterborough.

“Never Caught,” published Feb. 7, 37Ink/Atria Books, $25, is available wherever good books are sold.

Categories: Book Reviews