Book Review Never Caught The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge By Erica Armstrong Dunbar (Kindle Edition)

Posted: August 5, 2017 in Books

never caught

Ona Judge was born in June 1773.  Her mother Betty was a seamstress and a spinner.  She was also a dower slave who belonged to the Custis family, Daniel Parker Custis was Martha Washington’s first husband.  When Martha married George Washington, Betty and the other slaves moved to Mount Vernon in Virginia.  Ona’s father was a white Englishman, Andrew Judge.  Andrew was an indentured servant who eventually worked through his contract and gained freedom for himself.  He could have bought freedom for Betty and Ona but did not.

Ona was a bondwoman, much like her mother, learning the same skills as Betty, becoming a seamstress and spinner, also waiting on Martha Washington, to fulfill her needs. Neither the family or the slaves could stay in Virginia could stay very long, George Washington was unanimously elected the first President of the United States in 1789, so the family and  the slaves had to move to New York, the first capital of the U.S.  Even as the Washingtons and Ona Judge moved to New York, discussions were taking place to move the capital to Washington DC, Philadelphia would serve as the capital in the interim, starting in 1790.

The move to Philadelphia had a dramatic effect on Ona Judge’s life.  The Washingtons Judge and the other slaves moved into The Predsident’s House in Philadelphia in November of 1790. Philadelphia was a hotbed for abolition.  Ona was able to see and talk to free black men and women for probably the first time in her life. In addition Pennsylvania had a law which required the emancipation of any adult slave brought into the state for longer than six months.  George Washington routinely avoided complying with this law by shifting his slaves back and forth between Virginia and Philadelphia.

Just as George Washington was trying to shield his slaves from emancipation, Martha Washington introduced another life changing event into Ona Judge’s life.  Martha Washington pledged Ona’s services to her step-granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis, who was about to get married.  Betsy was known to have a quick temper with violent outburst.  This was the last straw for Ona Judge, she knew she couldn’t count on loyalty from Martha Washington.  So she ran away,  where did she go?  Was she ever found?

I’m not a fan of the mythology that is routinely taught about U.S. Presidents, the mythology around  George Washington is ridiculous.  He chopped down a cherry tree, and told his parents the truth about it, saying ‘I cannot tell a lie.’  This book successfully cuts through the mythology,  and gets to the heart of a very contentious issue slavery in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.

It was surprising how doggedly George Washington pursued Ona Judge and that he didn’t stop pursuing her.  I had always assumed that Washington, while not an abolitionist, was not actively involved in extending the life of the slave trade.  This book changed my mind, completely on that issue.  He signed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, to make it easier for slaveholders to go after runaway slaves, and also to placate Southern slave holders. Washington could have easily not pursued Ona Judge, but he never stopped, so his sterling reputation is tarnished a lot in this book and rightly so. He finally emancipates his slaves in 1802 after his death, but the book de-emphasizes this fact.

The book humanizes Martha Washington a bit more, talking about the death of her children from her first marriage and how that affected her emotionally.  Martha is still portrayed as a moody taskmistress who ultimately treated her slaves like property.

More surprising was the story of Ona Judge herself, an illiterate slave when she ran away, used her wits and a network of friends and strangers alike to stay free, it is a harrowing and exciting story, one that deserves to be told, and one that should have been told many years ago.  Freedom was not an abstract philosophical or political concept or ideal for Ona Judge.  She would rather live free, or die trying.  She knew what slavery was like and she did not want to go back to that life.

This book is not flawless, the biographical details of Judge’s life in the last chapter become broader over a longer time period, and then ends abruptly.  My guess is that the author, Mrs. Dunbar ran out of documentation on Judge and couldn’t extend the book any farther than she did.  The book was done at 53% of its Kindle capacity, the rest were author’s notes and an extensive glossary.  Documentation on fugitive slaves must be hard to come by, but the last chapter and abrupt ending is disappointing for a book that is absolutely riveting before that last chapter.

Never Caught: A good book, Judge for yourself.

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