Reading Matters

Ona Judge: The female slave George Washington could not catch

Imagine the Father of our Country vexed.

Imagine George Washington scratching his head and scheming to recapture his runaway slave Ona Judge.

Imagine the man whom school children are told never uttered a lie, using illegal means to return her to his 8,000-acre estate.

That slave, born in 1773 to an enslaved seamstress mother and a father who was a white indentured servant, is the subject of a new book, “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.” The author is Erica Armstrong Dunbar, a professor of black studies and history at the University of Delaware.

Ona was slender and fair-complected and a good seamstress. She oversaw Martha Washington’s wardrobe, a role that kept her out of the kitchen and the field. But, in 1796, she learned that she was to be given as a wedding present to Martha’s granddaughter Eliza, a young woman of “artistic temperament.” During a presidential dinner, with the aide of free blacks, Ona fled the executive mansion in Philly and made for a new life in New Hampshire – never to return to slavery.

Says Kirkus: “A startling, well-researched slave narrative that seriously questions the intentions of our first president.”

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