I love Oney Judge because she decided that she should be free…and she made it happen.
George Washington became a slave owner when he was eleven years old and was bequeathed ten slaves by his father’s last will and testament. For the forty years that George and Martha Washington lived together at Mount Vernon, there were three groups of slaves on the plantation. The first group belonged to George Washington outright. The second group belonged to the estate of Martha Washington’s first husband. The third group included slaves who had been rented from their owners, often because they had a special skill which Washington needed. Oney Judge belonged to the second group of slaves. Oney was 10 years old when she began working as “the particular attendant” for Mrs. Washington. Oney accompanied the Washingtons to NY, but she remained with them when they moved to Philadelphia with the new government at the end of 1790.
With the 1780 Gradual Abolition Act, Pennsylvania became the first state to establish a process to emancipate its slaves. But no one was freed at first. The process was to play out over decades and not end until the death of the last enslaved person in Pennsylvania. The law immediately prohibited importation of slaves into the state, and required an annual registration of those already held there. As president, George Washington denied enslaved African Americans their legal right to freedom by skirting the gradual abolition law in Pennsylvania. This law required owners to free adult slaves after six months of residency in the state; Washington evaded the law by rotating his slaves between his Mount Vernon and Philadelphia homes. Judge fled as the Washingtons were preparing to return to Virginia for a short trip between sessions of Congress. Martha Washington had informed her that she was to be given as a wedding present to the First Lady’s granddaughter. Judge recalled in an 1845 interview:”Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn’t know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty. I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington’s house while they were eating dinner.”
As an escaped slave, Judge posed a great threat to Washington’s system, so he tried, first through persuasion and then coercion and trickery, to get her to return to Philadelphia. Steadfast in her belief that she deserved to be free, Oney refused to return to the Washington home. Oney’s is the only case in which an escaped Washington slave got to tell her story. As a very old woman, she was interviewed at least twice. Interviews with Judge Staines were published in the May 1845 issue of The Granite Freeman and the January 1847 issue of The Liberator, both abolitionist newspapers. They contained a wealth of details about her life. She described the Washingtons, their attempts to capture her, her opinions on slavery, her pride in having learned to read, and her strong religious faith. When asked whether she was sorry that she left the Washingtons, since she labored so much harder after her escape than before, she said: “No, I am free, and have, I trust been made a child of God by the means.”On February 25, 2008, the 160th anniversary of Judge’s death, Philadelphia celebrated the first “Oney Judge Day” at the President’s House site. The President’s House Commemoration: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation, at 6th & Market Streets in Philadelphia, opened in December 2010. It includes a video about Oney Judge and information about all nine slaves held at the house.
One of my favorite books is ‘Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Dunbar. You can purchase it at my bookshop. https://bookshop.org/shop/melaninmindscape