What to do when someone is vindictive, racist, and out to get you - Lessons from Ona Judge
When I was in middle school, I went on a field trip from my small town in South Carolina to Washington D.C. I was part of something called Kennedy on Stage, which was kind of like “Glee” for middle school students. I wasn’t particularly musically or artistically inclined, but I knew KoS had great field/performance trips and I wanted desperately to visit anywhere outside of my small town, so there I was.
I remember two things distinctly from the D.C. trip. #1 was the fact that it was SO STRANGE for me to see my teachers outside of school. Who knew that middle school teachers had lives outside the classroom? Even though I had a number of teachers in my family (including my own mother), it was strange to see my teachers in shorts and sneakers, bopping to whatever was playing on their Walkmans (Google it, Generation Z-ers).
#2 was our opportunity to tour Mount Vernon, the plantation of George and Martha Washington. This was the earliest of the 90s, and what I most recall from the tour was not hearing much at all about the enslaved people who lived and toiled there. There was some brief mention of them, mostly of the happy slave variety, and I was pissed. At that age, my parents had taught me a lot and I knew the dangerous nature of this kind of revisionist narrative, as terribly illustrated by this TRAGEDY of a children’s book:
I had a right to be pissed. One of the stories missing from that tour was that of Ona “Oney” Judge, who I learned about much later in life. Ona’s life and story is remarkable, and there’s a lot we can learn from her even today. There are [at minimum] three things I think we can learn from Ona, who was targeted and hunted by America’s first president, who was vindictive, racist, and out to get her.
#1. Run away from, and stay away.
Ona had been enslaved by George and Martha Washington at Mount Vernon from the age of ten years old (Washington himself had, quite literally, been a slave owner for most of his life—he received his first ten slaves at eleven years old). Ona’s mother was an enslaved woman owned by Martha Washington’s first husband. When he died, Martha received a lifetime interest in a group of enslaved people, including Ona. Essentially, these people had to work for Martha, but then once Martha died any ownership interest would go back to her first husband’s family (this all may sound familiar to those of us who suffered through 1L property law). Le sigh.
Ona became a skilled seamstress and worked mostly for Martha. When George became America’s first president in 1789, he took seven enslaved people with him to the nation’s capital (then New York City). Ona was one of those seven. When the capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, Ona was one of nine enslaved people who was taken there too.
Interestingly, Pennsylvania had a law called “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery,” which authorized a-slow-but-deliberate end to slavery in 1780 in Pennsylvania. It also prohibited people from importing slaves into Pennsylvania, while providing some flexibility to slave owners who came to visit the state. While the law was somewhat complicated, it basically allowed slaveholders visiting Pennsylvania to keep slaves in the state for up to 6 months. A term longer than this meant that slaveholders had to free their slaves.
George Washington, who had moved to Pennsylvania to serve as president, exploited a loophole in the law. He would rotate his slaves out before the 6 month deadline, thus keeping them in bondage so that they didn’t have to be freed under the Pennsylvania law.
Ona was one of the people rotated in and out of Pennsylvania this way by George Washington. She hated being enslaved, particularly after having seen free blacks during her rotations in Pennsylvania. She decided to escape after being told that she was going to be given to the Washington’s granddaughter as a wedding gift. The next time she was scheduled to go back to Virginia, she secretly boarded a ship to New Hampshire and successfully escaped. This was in 1796. She had made friends with free blacks in Pennsylvania and they helped her get out undetected (at least for a long enough period of time to make it out).
Ona began to make a new, life in New Hampshire—getting married, having children, and finding work where she could. While it was difficult, and she experienced significant familial and other hardships, she was quoted later as saying that her freedom had been worth it all. Leaving the president’s home was a good move for her.
On to the next lesson…
#2. Do not negotiate with someone who will not honor an agreement.
George was furious upon learning that Ona had escaped, and he used the full force of the federal government to pursue her. Here’s the ad he placed in the newspaper to solicit others to catch her and return her to him:
George solicited the help of the most powerful people in government to hunt down Ona, including the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Oliver Wolcott Jr. In his letter to Oliver, George notes “the ingratitude of the girl, who was brought up & treated more like a child than a servant (& Mrs Washington's desire to recover her) ought not to escape with impu[nity] if it can be avoided.”
Oliver enlisted the help of other government officials in New Hampshire to capture Ona, but she thwarted all attempts. Joseph Whipple, Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s collector of customs, was one of those local officials. Joseph tricked Ona into coming to his office and tried to negotiate with her. He suggested that she return in exchange for freedom at some point in the future, and she played along once she realized the ploy (seemingly so that she could get out of there unscathed). Ona told Joseph she’d return if George and Martha freed her upon their deaths. When Joseph shared that with George, he was incensed. He wrote to Joseph:
I regret that the attempt you made to restore the girl (Oney Judge as she called herself while with us, and who, without the least provocation absconded from her Mistress) should have been attended with so little success. To enter into such a compromise, as she has suggested to you, is totally inadmissible, for reasons that must strike at first view: for however well disposed I might be to a gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of People (if the latter was in itself practicable at this Moment) it would neither be politic or just, to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference; and thereby discontent, beforehand, the minds of all her fellow Servants; who by their steady adherence, are far more deserving than herself, of favor.
His letter also makes veiled threats to Ona’s family and friends, who are still enslaved by the Washingtons. He also references the fact that he knows she may be pregnant, alluding to the potential peril her children could be in by her actions.
Even after George left the presidency, he continued to send people to try to capture Ona. In one particularly harrowing event, George‘s nephew, Burwell Bassett Jr., came to New Hampshire to kidnap Ona and her recently-born infant child. Burwell went to Ona’s home, knocked on her door, and told her he was there to take her back to the Washingtons. Ona refused to go and instead escaped and hid in a small town several miles away. This kind of thing was part of Ona’s life as long as George was alive.
Ona did not even find reprieve once George Washington died. While George and Martha both freed many of their slaves either by will or manumission, Ona was not one of those because of her status as a dower slave.
This lesson from Ona is an important one. She did not attempt to negotiate with George to her peril. Had she actually returned to the Washingtons, she never would have been freed because of her status as a dower slave, no matter what the Washingtons did or did not do. Her first husband’s family held a property interest in both her and her children. Ona knew this and was not intimidated into second-guessing herself.
On to the final lesson:
#3 Speak out and share your truth.
Ona valued her freedom more than nearly anything in her life. She actually did not go quietly into the night—she gave several interviews to anti-slavery newspapers in the 1840s. In fact, more is known about her than any other enslaved person from Mount Vernon because of these interviews. She was unapologetic about escaping—when asked if she ever regretted it or felt sorry for leaving the Washingtons, she replied "No, I am free, and have, I trust been made a child of God by the means.”
Here’s an excerpt from one of the articles, though you can read the full text of both at this link:
Ona’s interviews marked her place in history and allowed others of the day to hear about and frame opposition to slavery. Her story is now the most robust of nearly all of the other people enslaved at Mount Vernon. What is also remarkable is that roughly 90% of the fugitive slave narratives exist are from men, which makes Ona’s story even more important.
Experiences like Ona’s have led Mount Vernon to more fully share the experiences of those enslaved there. Remaining silent was not an option for her, and American history is better for it. The biography of her life by Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, goes into a lot more detail. I haven’t read it yet but it is high on my list.
Ona Judge left us with not only an important recounting of the American slavery, but also with lessons for how to survive in a world driven by hate, greed and grudges. I, for one, am taking those notes. Shoot me a comment if you have other lessons to share from Ona and her experiences.
If you’d like to hear a fuller accounting of Ona Judge and her life, check out Uncivil’s episode on her life, titled “The Fugitive.” It is brilliant.