When Ona “Oney” Judge was 22 years old, she ran away to freedom. Judge was First Lady Martha Washington’s favorite slave and had lived with the First Family at Mt. Vernon and in Philadelphia. She escaped the President’s Philadelphia mansion in 1796 after working as a seamstress for the Washingtons for more than a decade. Historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar chronicled the story of Judge, who had little written about her, in her book Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge. Dunbar says Judge’s story touches on race, gender, labor, and presidential politics at the end of the 18th century. “Ona’s life gave me the opportunity to think about things like, how slavery was ending in the North but becoming much more entrenched in the South,” Dunbar says, “What did the laws look like regarding returning fugitive slaves? What did it mean to be a slave who worked in the household as opposed to one who worked in the fields?”
In this episode she speaks with Michele Norris, founder of The Race Card Project and executive director of The Bridge at the Aspen Institute, about Judge’s story of triumph, survival, and resistance.
Read more about the topics mentioned in this conversation.
- In Search of the Slave Who Defied George Washington, New York Times
- Ona Judge, George Washington’s Mount Vernon
- The man who fed the first president — and hungered for freedom, The Washington Post
- Did George Washington Really Free Mount Vernon’s Slaves?, The History Channel
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