Reviewed by Natasha Larimer
In 1773 an enslaved Virginian named Betty gave birth to a daughter, Ona. By law, children followed the condition of the mother and hence (despite her father’s position as a white indentured servant), upon her birth, Ona Judge became property of none other than Martha Washington. By her teenage years, Judge was a valued house slave working in the residence, personally assisting Martha and the Washington grandchildren. Because of her esteemed standing, Judge accompanied the new President’s family to the Nation’s first capital of New York City, and eventually the temporary U.S. capital of Philadelphia. And it is here where the story and indeed Judge’s life literally took off. Judge ran away one May evening in 1796 while the President and his wife were dining at their residence on what is now Market Street in the vicinity of Independence Hall.
Luckily for us, historian and Philadelphia native, Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar discovered a runaway slave ad for Judge in the Philadelphia Gazette, and proceeded to flesh out her remarkable life. Part adventure story, part comprehensive slave history, Dunbar’s Never Caught: The Story of Ona Judge, The Washington’s Runaway Slave (Atria/37 Ink) provides an engrossing narrative of Judge’s life, escape, and life afterwards as a fugitive in New Hampshire, bravely dodging the Washingtons’ attempts to reclaim their lost property.
Piecing together the lives of eighteenth-century non-literate enslaved Black women is no small feat. Starting with two interviews given by Judge in the 1840s, Dunbar expertly crafts together Judge’s whereabouts, her family connections, and her associations with white servants and free Blacks in the Northern cities she lived in. In order to describe the oppressive, never-ending work of a domestic slave, Dunbar necessarily extrapolates from secondary research, and makes some assumptions regarding what Judge must have known, heard, and felt in her variety of circumstances. All of these inferences are carefully presented with multiple theories, not one definitive answer (Ona’s conception providing one such interesting case in point). Judge’s slave life is woven together with letters and business documents from the Washingtons and their friends, as well as census materials to provide a carefully presented yet riveting story.
This expert narration provides a fascinating resource of eighteenth-century slavery due to Judge’s domestic position among the estate’s slaves as well as her travels to Northern cities that put her in close contact with free Blacks and indentured servants. Dunbar also explains how the simultaneous upheaval on the national stage that impacted the Washingtons – becoming President, changing the location of the nation’s capitol, and the onset of a fragile compromise regarding labor systems of Northern and Southern states – also impacted their slaves, as did the tremors – birth, death, marriage – within the Washington family.
Never Caught is undoubtedly Judge’s story, and Dunbar argues it is her unwavering desire for freedom and a craftily amassed intelligence of her legal, communal and geographic situation that culminates in her ultimate act of resistance.
Most stunning though, is Judge’s achievement of a parallel definition of freedom alongside – literally under the same roof as – George Washington himself. Her victories of marriage, children, and income are more remarkable given Washington’s manipulation of Pennsylvania’s manumission laws in order to keep his slaves in bondage, and his determination to recapture his financial asset. Never Caught is the quintessential Philadelphia story of an underdog who invokes street sense, determination, and the ability to take advantage of the city’s diversity to emerge victorious. It is also a bold and valiant example of the Revolution’s promise, with none other than our first president as the foil.
Natasha Larimer holds a PhD in American History from the University of Wisconsin. She makes her home in Mt. Airy with her husband and two children.