Book Review: “Never Caught, the Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge” by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Reviewed by Bev Scott
Ona Judge, Runaway Slave. "Never Caught" book review by Bev Scott, Author

Erica Armstrong Dunbar utilizes the details of history to create an engaging story of the life of a runaway slave owned by Martha Washington. Betty, Ona Judge’s mother, came to Mt. Vernon as a slave, when Martha accepted the hand of George Washington to marry him as her second husband in 1759. Betty was lucky to be able to keep her son Austin with her with the move to Mt. Vernon. Many slave mothers were less fortunate as the birth of their children added value property for their owners who could sell the child or the mother separately. Martha favored her slave Betty, a seamstress and expert spinner.

Ona Judge – Early Life

Around 1773, Ona Judge was born to Betty and an English-born white man, Andrew Judge. Andrew, an indentured servant, served as a trusted tailor, ultimately making clothing for the entire Washington family. However, by the 1780’s he had left Mt. Vernon and lived in his own home in Fairfax County. Ona did not spend her childhood with both parents. Her white father was able to leave a life of unpaid labor; her slave mother spent the entirety of her life in bondage. The author emphasizes that Ona learned valuable lessons from both of her parents…the power of perseverance from her mother and recognition that a decision to “free oneself trumped everything, no matter who was left behind.”

Dunbar describes the historical context of the time and imagines the potential experiences which influenced Ona. In 1789, Washington accepted the Presidency of the new nation and moved to New York bringing slaves with them. Among them was sixteen-year old Ona Judge as a housemaid and personal attendant for the first lady. As Martha Washington’s top servant, Ona would be expected to know her desires, select gowns, keep them in repair and be available whenever needed. New York was still grappling with black emancipation. New York leaders did not plan to end slavery at that time. Yet, there were discussions prompting New Yorkers to rethink their commitment to slavery. Ona would have had little opportunity to make contact with the free black community in New York. Yet, there probably were occasions when Ona may have heard stories of the escapes of fugitive slaves or overheard discrete discussions of freedom and slavery.

States’ Laws Differ Regarding Slavery

When the capital of the United States changed to Philadelphia, Ona lived in the President’s House with between twenty-five and thirty residents, slave and free. She and the Washingtons quickly learned that Pennsylvania’s attitude toward slavery was much different than New York’s. In fact, “slavery was on it’s deathbed” as Dunbar describes it. Pennsylvania became the first state to gradually dismantle slavery. It required emancipating slaves who were brought to the state for more than six months. President Washington rationalized his position by saying that he was not a citizen of that state. He lived in Pennsylvania only as a necessity of his employment. Nevertheless, the President and Martha developed a plan of rotating the slaves to and from Mt. Vernon every six months. They intended to keep their slaves in the dark regarding the legal potential of freedom. Their plan worked for more than five years.

Despite the intense demands of serving Martha Washington, Ona, as Dunbar suggests, made contacts with the free black community in Philadelphia. When Washington’s second term was coming to a close and the household would be returning to Mt. Vernon, it was a much less attractive place for Ona after the death of her mother and her brother. In addition, she learned that her new owner would soon be Martha Washington’s newlywed mercurial granddaughter. This meant losing her preferential position as attendant to Mrs. Washington. She became convinced that if she returned to Virginia, she would not have an opportunity to escape. The author suggests that Ona probably reached out to a group of free black allies in Philadelphia for help. She never revealed who assisted her. 

The Escape

Ona carefully planned the timing and the method of her escape with the help of associates. She slipped out of the Executive Mansion on May 21, 1796 while the Washingtons were having supper. And thus Ona disappeared into the free black community of Philadelphia. Two days later the Washingtons placed an ad in the Philadelphia Gazette describing her and the possessions she had taken with her. By then Ona had escaped by boat from Philadelphia and traveled to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Washington did not let her go easily and took steps to recapture her. The authorities found Ona, but never captured or returned her.

The author of Never Caught uses historical detail as well as creative description of the potential experiences that shaped the slave’s life. The interweaving of this historical detail and the potential wit, skill and circumstances that enabled Ona Judge to plan and succeed in her quest for freedom, makes a compelling story. I recommend this book to anyone interested in American History.