In recent years I’ve discovered that, though I like to read many types of material, historical books are my favorite, especially factual ones dealing with the history of African Americans in this country. I’ve just completed an excellent one; “Never Caught – The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge,” by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Professor Dunbar, historian, writer and lecturer is Professor of Black American Studies and History at the University of Delaware. This book, her third, tells the little-known story of Ona Judge, a biracial woman born into slavery about 1773 at Mt. Vernon, the estate of America’s first elected President, George Washington. Though few documents exist about Ona Judge, Ms. Dunbar’s extensive research is able to fill in the blanks and tell a fascinating story, rooted in fact.
Born to an enslaved mother and an indentured servant white father, Ona was technically the property of Martha Washington, George’s wife, whose family actually owned Ona’s mother, Betty Davis. Ona was the second of Betty’s four children. Betty was a “house slave;” a gifted seamstress whose job was making and maintaining Martha Washington’s wardrobe. Ona shared her mother’s talents and followed in her footsteps, also being assigned to help care for the Washingtons’ grandchildren, who lived with them.
This was a turbulent period in America’s history, following the Revolutionary War when Washington, having become President of the new United States of America, had to leave Mt. Vernon, taking his family and household “help” first to New York, the first temporary capitol of the new nation, then on to Philadelphia. Ona traveled with them and in Philadelphia, first encountered and interacted with significant numbers of free Blacks. Philadelphia, at the time, was a hotbed of abolitionist activity, and in fact, the state of Pennsylvania had a law decreeing that slaves brought into the state, had to be freed after 6 months of continuous residency here. Professor Dunbar’s meticulous research enables her to reconstruct the life of this young woman, enslaved and illiterate, up to the point at which she decided to pursue her freedom, then detailing her life as a fugitive, knowing that she was being pursued by one of the most powerful men in the country. The author also details the lengths to which the President went to attempt to circumvent the “6 month” law. Ona in many ways, encapsulates this period; the beginning of the end of slavery in the United States of America. Many enslaved people attempted to escape; few succeeded. Ona did, and her story is fascinating and empowering.
I heartily recommend “Never Caught.” There is much to learn here, about the history of African Americans, particularly in Philadelphia, about the “peculiar institution” of slavery in “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” and about the country’s first President. It reads more like a novel than a history book, a credit to the author. I predict that you’ll not only learn a lot, you’ll enjoy it thoroughly!
by Jerry Wells