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'Never Caught' author speaks

Photos by Evan Krape

UD’s Erica Armstrong Dunbar speaks on new book at annual UDLA Faculty Lecture

When the University of Delaware’s Erica Armstrong Dunbar was thinking of titles for her new book, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave Ona Judge, she chose historical accuracy over spoiler-free labels like “freedom” and “free.”

“Ona Judge was never free,” said Dunbar, speaking before the 200-plus students, faculty, staff and friends gathered at Morris Library for the 2017 UD Library Associates Faculty Lecture on her book last week. “She was simply never caught.”

Dunbar’s critically-acclaimed narrative — of a 22-year-old woman who “stole herself” from the president’s home, living the rest of her years as a fugitive and “forcing the man who won the American Revolution to show his slave-holding hand” — aimed to tell Judge’s story while highlighting “the founding of the country through the eyes of the enslaved.”

It wasn’t an easy feat, admitted Dunbar, the Blue and Gold Professor of Black American Studies and History. She credited the process of writing her first book, African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City, with providing the background and knowledge that allowed her to fill in historical gaps of a fugitive woman whose life required anonymity.

But much of her research came from direct sources: letters written by Washington himself, or interviews Judge gave at the end of her life. Through her research emerged a picture of the earliest years of America, “of the sting of slavery and the drive of defiance,” of a “national hero who had the courage to defy the president, the wit to make allies, and the ability to out-negotiate, escape, run and survive.”

Dunbar’s talk was sponsored by the University of Delaware Library Associates, a philanthropic organization that supports the library’s mission to enrich and engage through knowledge. 

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