Category Archives: Biography

The Book Whisperer Discovers a True Story About Slavery

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Never Caught is a captivating story of Ona Judge, a slave owned by Martha Custis Washington and brought to her marriage with George Washington. Erica Armstrong Dunbar, the author, is the Charles and Mary Beard Professor of History at Rutgers University. Professor Dunbar has received fellowships from Ford, Mellon, and SSRC. Her first book is A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City.

Watch a YouTube video book talk with Professor Dunbar on Never Caught: https://youtu.be/b39sm0WjIf0. She maintains a Web site at this link: https://ericaarmstrongdunbar.com/. There, readers will find information about Professor Dunbar’s work as a writer, historian, and lecturer.

Dunbar provides a biography of Ona Judge, a dower slave, owned by Martha Parke Custis, brought to her marriage with George Washington. Dower slaves were held in trust for Martha’s children or grandchildren. Technically, they did not belong to Washington, but he owned slaves in his own right.

When George Washington became President of the newly formed United States, he had to move his family first to New York City and then Philadelphia from their beloved home at Mount Vernon. The Washingtons chose a small number of slaves to take with them as servants in both NY and PA. Ona Judge was one of those who moved with the family. Betty, Ona’s mother, was a favored slave in Martha’s household.

Ona became very much like a lady’s maid, dressing Martha and combing her hair. Ona also had to repair any damage to Martha’s clothes, so she became an expert seamstress. Martha depended upon Ona a great deal. Ona would even make social calls with Martha, staying in the background both at home and on visits to other homes in case Martha needed Ona.

Dunbar describes Ona’s duties well and also reminds readers of the perils young female slaves faced. Apparently, the Washingtons treated Ona well, giving her new clothes and treating her kindly, but she was still enslaved and at their beck and call.

Once the family moved to Philadelphia, the Washingtons had to take the slaves back to Mount Vernon or to the neighboring state of New Jersey every six months or the slaves could be declared free. The Washingtons wanted to keep this knowledge from the slaves, but, no doubt, the information did leak out.

When Martha’s granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis, also called Betsey and Eliza, married Thomas Law, a man twenty years her senior, Martha bequeathed Ona Judge to the granddaughter. Elizabeth was known to have a stormy temper and to be unpredictable. Ona definitely did not wish to become her property even though it meant returning to her family in the South.

At that point, Ona made up her mind to run away. Runaway slaves had a difficult time and were often caught. Rewards from $5 to $10, a lot of money in those days, were offered for the capture and return of the slaves.

Ona found passage on a ship with Captain John Bowles who took her to Portsmouth, NH. The passage was difficult and Ona was seasick on the ship. Once she got to Portsmouth, she had to find a job and lodging. She managed both of those tasks, taking a job as a domestic.

Below is the first newspaper ad posted seeking Ona Judge’s return:

In living with the Washingtons, Ona had had an easy life in terms of work, but she was on constant call. As an escapee, she had to do very hard work as a laundress and housekeeper. In those days, the jobs were not only difficult, but also dangerous.

One day in Portsmouth, Ona is on her way to work when she comes face-to-face with Senator Langdon’s daughter. Ona does not acknowledge the young woman, but she recognizes Ona and tells her father that she has seen Ona. At that point, readers imagine that Ona will be taken back to the Washingtons or that she will flee to another city.

In effort to find Ona Judge, Washington wrote a letter to Oliver Wolcott: “I am sorry to give you, or any one else trouble on such a trifling occasion. The ingratitude of the girl, who was brought up & treated more like a child than a Servant ought not to escape with impunity if it can be avoided.” Clearly, he missed the points that Ona was not a child and was not free.

Ona remains in Portsmouth and she remains free of capture, but she does experience some terrifying moments. Washington’s nephew Burwell Bassett is sent to retrieve Ona, but he fails. Others also try to return Ona to the Washingtons, but without success.

In Portsmouth, Ona met Jack Staines and they were legally married in 1797. Staines was a free black man, seaman who was often gone at sea. Unable to marry in Portsmouth, Ona and Jack went to the nearby town of Greenland where they were married. Ona later found refuge in Greenland with a free black family when Jack Staines died.

Dunbar gives readers background on the times, the ways people began looking at slavery and groups which formed to abolish slavery. In NY, for example, the New-York Manumission Society was founded in 1785 by John Jay and others “to promote the gradual abolition of slavery and manumission of slaves of African descent within the state of New York.”

In Pennsylvania, the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully held in Bondage was the first American Abolition society, founded April 14, 1775. Later, it was reorganized and became the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage with the short name of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Benjamin Franklin became the president of the organization and took the matter of slavery to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

The yellow fever epidemic of 1793 in Philadelphia killed almost 5000 people between Aug 1 and Nov 9. No one knew that mosquitoes transmitted the fever until that fact was verified in the nineteenth century. The yellow fever epidemic ended with the frost that killed the mosquitoes. Doctors thought African-Americans were immune to yellow fever, so many were recruited to care for the sick and bury the dead. Of course, they were not immune and many became ill and died.

Washington did struggle with the morality of slavery, but he did not free his slaves during his lifetime. Washington’s will “stipulated that aged slaves, those who were unable to work or support themselves, receive assistance and that they be ‘comfortably clothed and fed’ by the Washington heirs after their liberation took effect.” He also decreed that the slaves be taught to read and write and taught a useful occupation in preparation for their freedom.

Dunbar provides readers with a well-rounded look at slavery through the life of one slave: Ona Judge.