The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Waiting to Be Found: Erica Armstrong Dunbar & the Story of Ona Judge

Erica Armstrong Dunbar

“To me, Black History means decolonizing history. I am here because I want to support Black History Month,” said Muhammad Faraz, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science. Faraz was one of nearly one hundred people who came to hear professor and writer Erica Armstrong Dunbar speak at the twentieth annual Black History Month Celebration this past Wednesday, February 12. 

Dunbar is the Charles and Mary Beard Professor of History at Rutgers University. After her first book, A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City, was published by Yale University in 2008, Dunbar turned to a new project: a nine-year journey through numerous archive collections that allowed her to uncover and write down the previously-untold story of Ona Judge, a woman who sought freedom by “stealing herself” away from the first president of the United States. This book, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, won the 2018 Frederick Douglass Book Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction. 

Never Caught sheds light on a side of George Washington and his family that is rarely told in history books. Some of us might only know him as the first U.S. president and leader of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, or perhaps for a tale involving a cherry tree and the enduring phrase, “I cannot tell a lie” (the story of which is actually a myth). But what many of us are not aware of is the fact that George and Martha Washington were both adamant, lifelong slave owners who spent years of their lives in determined pursuit of one of their escaped slaves, Ona Judge. 

The story of getting to know Judge began with Dunbar’s archival research of eighteenth-century Philadelphia, where she came across a May 1796 advertisement for the “runaway slave of the first president of the United States.” As Dunbar wrote in a 2015 New York Times op-ed piece, “George Washington, Slave Catcher,” slavery was on the decline in the North during the late 1700s, but Washington “needed slave labor to maintain his wealth, his lifestyle and his reputation,” and thus decided against leaving this practice behind. 

When the Washingtons moved to New York and, later, Philadelphia during George Washington’s first two terms as president, they were met with opposition from Pennsylvania’s “Gradual Abolition Act” of 1780. This law granted automatic freedom to any slave over the age of twenty-eight who had been living in the state with an owner for at least six months. But the Washingtons’ plans for slave ownership would not be defeated so easily; in order to counteract the rule, they made sure to escort their slaves back to Mt. Vernon or across state lines, effectively “resetting the clocks” every six months before their slaves could free themselves. 

Not only was Washington adamant about ensuring that his own slaves would be bound to servitude, but he also made sure that slave owners would be protected in their pursuits. With the signing of the first fugitive slave law in 1793, Washington made it legal for fugitive slaves to be “seized in any state, tried, and returned to their owners.” This was enforced with a five-hundred dollar penalty – and the possibility of imprisonment—for anyone who failed to comply. Roughly three years later, after learning that Martha Washington was planning to give her “favorite” slave to her granddaughter, Eliza Parke Custis Law, as a wedding “gift,” Judge made the decision to run away from the Washingtons’ iron grip. Before his death in 1799, George Washington pursued Judge with fervent determination, reaching out for any potential leads from his social network. 

In the last three years of Washington’s life, Judge managed to evade his searching. A few months after she made it to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Judge married a free black sailor, Jack Staines. Together, they had three children whom, along with Judge, lived as free people but were legally the property of Martha Washington. Upon George Washington’s death, Martha emancipated his slaves, as was written in his will. Martha Washington did not, however, free a single one of her slaves in her lifetime or after her death in 1802. 

Reflecting on the experience of uncovering and piecing together Judge’s story, Dunbar said, “It’s truly an honor to share Ona’s story. I wanted to be able to use Ona’s story as a portal into telling a larger narrative...about the founding of the nation—not through the eyes of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. I want it from the top down. I wanted to do it through the eyes of an enslaved person.” When asked about how she went about finding Judge’s “hidden story,” Dunbar added that “we shouldn’t always see these people as hidden or hiding, but that they’re simply waiting to be found.” 

Elaina Wolfson is a first-year psychology student who said that she attended this year’s Black History Month event “to get the author’s perspective” on the stories that have typically been told surrounding the Founding Fathers. Hamed Selemani, a first-year biology student, added that “it’s important for people of all races to attend this kind of event; this history isn’t often told in schools from this point of view.” 

Dunbar spoke to this imbalance of representation, explaining that unless we write and share these untold stories, there is no way that we can change the way history has been taught and will continue to be taught to future generations. “If you really want the American narrative to change, you’ve got to write for younger readers. This is the kind of information that has to find its way in the K–12 curriculum.” 

For this reason, Dunbar chose to adapt Never Caught into a version that would be accessible for younger readers: Never Caught, the Story of Ona Judge: George and Martha Washington's Courageous Slave Who Dared to Run Away. Now that this story has been documented, Dunbar added, “When you teach about George Washington, there’s absolutely no reason you shouldn’t tell Ona’s story too.” 

Thank you to Erica Armstrong Dunbar for giving a voice to Ona Judge, and thanks to all those who came out to engage with this powerful and necessary conversation.