VOL. 3 / NO. 2 INTERACTIVE PDF
By Tracey Bryant
In 1796, Ona Judge, Martha Washington’s “body slave,” fled the household of the first president of the United States, bringing a young nation’s views about slavery into sharper focus. Erica Armstrong Dunbar uncovers fascinating details of Judge’s life, and sheds light on the Washingtons’ views on slavery, in a forthcoming book.
What thoughts raced through Ona Judge’s mind, as the 15-year-old slave jostled to and fro on the carriage ride from Mount Vernon, Virginia, to New York City? Judge was one of seven slaves that George and Martha Washington were bringing to New York to help run the first presidential residence.
Rather than the Mansion House and farms of Mount Vernon, where more than 300 slaves, including her mother, Betty, worked, Judge would soon be surrounded by the precious liberty that George Washington had led the American colonists in fighting for, and the Founding Fathers had set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
Washington took the oath of office as the first president of the United States on the balcony of the Federal Building in New York City on April 30, 1789. Sixteen months later, the U.S. capital moved to Philadelphia, and the Washingtons took up residence in the President’s House, a mansion at 6th and Market Streets.
Although Pennsylvania had passed the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1780, the first government to outlaw slavery in the Western Hemisphere, the Washingtons transferred their house slaves from New York to work in this mansion, which would serve as the official seat of government until the Federal City was completed in the District of Columbia.
This Pennsylvania law made it possible for slaves of non-resident slaveholders to obtain their freedom after residing in the state for six months. The slaves at the President’s House were moved out of state before this residency requirement was met and then brought back in, even after the practice was outlawed in 1788.
Judge served Lady Washington as a “body slave,” a term denoting a maid and personal attendant. Referred to as “Oney” by the Washingtons, Judge helped her mistress to dress and to powder her hair, accompanied her on social calls, ran errands, did needlework (she was a fine seamstress like her mother) and tended to other tasks in the bustling household of America’s first president.
However, as day-to-day life progressed in Philadelphia, and Washington’s second term as president neared an end, Judge frequently would need new shoes.
We know this, points out University of Delaware historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar, because George Washington was a fastidious record keeper.
“What’s really interesting, looking at his ledgers, is the number of times Ona Judge was given money to buy shoes,” Dunbar says. “Perhaps she was doing some planning. After all, if you were going to escape, especially from the household of one so famous as the president of the United States, you would need shoes.”
One evening in late May 1796, as the Washingtons were having dinner, Judge took her first footsteps to freedom. Free black friends hid her and found passage for her on a ship sailing north. Judge landed in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, eager to begin a new life.
But the Washingtons wanted her back.
An ad that ran in the Pennsylvania Gazette, announcing a $10 reward for her return, described Judge as “a light mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes and bushy black hair.”
Having accompanied the famous Washingtons for several years, Judge was easily recognized in major cities such as New York and Philadelphia. But she also was conspicuous when she arrived in Portsmouth, where perhaps only three percent of the population was of African descent, according to Dunbar.
“Within a few months, her cover was blown,” Dunbar says. “A friend of Nelly Custis, the Washingtons’ granddaughter, spots Judge in Portsmouth and word soon reaches the Washingtons. In a time and place where slavery was be-coming increasingly unpopular, the Washingtons knew they needed to proceed very carefully.”
Twice, through his nephew, Burnwell Bassett, Jr., George Washington attempts to retrieve Judge.
At one point, Judge says she is willing to return to the Washingtons if she will be granted her freedom upon their deaths. Because Judge was one of a number of “dower slaves,” inherited by Martha Washington when her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, died, that meant Judge would not be freed; when Martha died, her dower slaves would go to the Custis heirs.
On the second attempt, Bassett is given orders to capture Judge and her daughter by force (she married seaman Joseph Staines in 1797 and had her first daughter that year). Even Sen. John Langdon, former governor of New Hampshire, plays a role in protecting her. Lodging at Langdon’s, Bassett discloses his intent, and Langdon sends word for Judge to go into hiding.
By the end of the 18th century, there had been a huge shift in American culture, and an abolition sentiment becomes more popular as a religious awakening in the North.
“The Virginians’ attempt to assert their culture on Portsmouth didn’t go over very well,” Dunbar says.
George Washington is revered as the “father of our country,” an architect of the republic — a new form of government dedicated to liberty and justice for all. How could he possibly be a slaveholder? Yet slaveholding had been a way of life in the American colonies. It was a practice Washington grew up with — at the age of 11, he inherited 10 slaves from his father.
As he fought in the American Revolution, helped craft the nation’s remarkable guiding documents and served as America’s first president, did Washington ultimately conclude that slavery was wrong?
“In many ways, Ona Judge’s life expresses the real struggle between abolition and those committed to it,” Dunbar says. “Washington demonstrates his own ambivalence. When Martha met George, she was a young widow with lots of tobacco farms and slaves. When they married, he became one of the largest slaveholders.
“I do think we see a change over time in Washington’s attitude toward slavery,” Dunbar continues. “But at the end of the day, he still fought to have this woman returned to him. Even three months before his death, he was still pursuing Ona Judge.”
Washington includes provisions in his will that his slaves be set free upon his death (the only slaveholding founding father to do so), and Martha abides by his wishes when he dies on Dec. 14, 1799. Although Judge is Martha’s slave, no further attempts are made to capture her, and on Feb. 25, 1848, Judge dies in New Hampshire, poor, but free.
Ona Judge was one of America’s most celebrated runaway slaves — and in Dunbar’s estimation, should be as famous as Frederick Douglass — yet few scholarly writings about her exist.
Dunbar wants to fill that void. A Philadelphia native, Dunbar attended Quaker school for much of her life and says it “pushed her into issues of social justice.” Poring through multiple sources, from Washington’s diaries to newspaper accounts, in Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, Dunbar is working to reconstruct Judge’s life.
“The notations in Washington’s ledgers about Judge’s shoes or the money she was given to go to the theatre yield moments that often escape us,” says Dunbar, who has dedicated her scholarship to telling the stories of the largely undocumented lives of African American women of the 17th through 19th centuries. “These are moments that make them come alive.
“This is the work we must rely on —small glimpses of everyday life,” Dunbar continues. “Scholars must be detectives who look at ordinary sources with new vision, new lenses.”
Dunbar expects to finish writing the book this summer and publish it in 2013. Also author of A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City (Yale University Press, 2008), Dunbar is the first director of the Program in African American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia. Founded by Benjamin Franklin, it is the oldest library in the nation and has more than 13,000 sources focusing on early African American life and culture.
George Washington's ledgers document six orders for new shoes for Ona Judge from 1793 to 1796. Was Judge planning her escape from slavery?