Lesson 123:
Oney Judge

An ongoing illustrative history study
This piece originally posted 3/27/2023

Prelude | 119 | 120 | 121 | 122 | 123 | 124 | 125 | 126 | 127 | Email

The President's House - pen and ink, 2.5 in. x 3.5 in.

For only the second time since beginning this series in the summer of 2020, I have had to resort to drawing a much more abstract illustration --in this instance, the long-demolished President's House in Philadelphia-- as there appears to be no visual representation of the individual that I want to talk about (which in itself already speaks volumes).

Almost paralleling these last three years of this series, there has been an embarrassing (nay, alarming) uptick in the number of proposed so-called "divisive concepts" legislation brewing in various state legislatures. The (stated) intent behind such performatively-drafted law is to "protect" public school students from the "trauma" of studying American history in such a way that they won't be made to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable about the history of their own country; that the curriculum should instead focus primarily on instilling an all-pervasive sense of pride and patriotism. I think on this creeping propaganda (against which my own home state is sadly not immune), and immediately begin to reflect on the life trajectory of Oney Marie Judge (in some instances spelled Ona), whose greatest claim to fame (if one can call it that) is having been one of President George Washington's slaves.

Oney Judge is assumed to have been born sometime in 1773 at Washington's Mount Vernon estate --the daughter of an enslaved mother, Betty; and a white English father who had been hired by the Washingtons as a tailor. As was so often the norm for the time, Oney's relatively light complexion promoted her to house status instead of field hand, and by the age of fifteen had become Martha Washington's personal maid. On paper, Oney and her mother Betty were considered to be the property of the Custis estate, and would pass back to the ownership of that family upon Martha's death --specifically to Martha's granddaughter Elizabeth ("Eliza") Custis.

After his popular election in 1787, Washington travelled first to New York, and then to Philadelphia, to serve as President of the new nation while a more permanent capital city was being constructed. Washington brought Judge and seven other slaves with him from Mount Vernon, taking up residence in what would become known as The President's House at the corner of 6th and Market Streets. Significantly, as befit her elevated status (such as it was), Judge was permitted to travel about the city unescorted and pay for such things as shows, dresses and other clothing, and even making social visits on Martha's behalf. Judge intermingled with Philadelphians and became VERY aware of the city's abolitionist sentiment and its markedly large population of free Black people. Philadelphia had passed an Emancipation law in 1780 (one of the very first such laws in the new nation), which included a Gradual Abolition Clause; a policy of automatic emancipation of any slaves who remained in the city limits beyond a six month time-frame. For obvious reasons George and Martha took particular care to strategically rotate out their slaves, each time sending them back to Mount Vernon "to visit family" just shy of this deadline.

On May 21, 1796, under the guise of appearing to pack for her next not-quite-sixth-month return to Virginia, Judge fled, and escaped aboard a ship called the Nancy bound for Portsmouth, New Hampshire. An advertisement went out on May 23rd asserting that the escaped slave had "no good reason for running away." By September of that year a family friend of the Washingtons recognized Judge in Portsmouth and sent word back to Philadelphia. Under the terms of the very Fugitive Slave Act that he himself had signed into law three years earlier, Washington could have forcibly kidnapped Judge back to Virginia, but undoubtedly mindful of the public optics, he opted not to take action. While he expressed undisguised annoyance at Judge's actions and wrote at length about "loyalty" and "unfaithfulness," privately his real resentment was that he would be expected to reimburse the Custis estate for lost property. After Washington's term in office ended, he made another attempt to retrieve Judge, this time asking the help of a nephew and several New Hampshire public officials to do so. Fortunately then-Senator John Langdon got wind of this attempt and warned Judge, who then fled to the town of Greenland where she eventually settled, learned to read and write, became a devout Christian, married, and had three children --even though she legally remained a Fugitive Slave to her dying day.

Judge's story would have faded into history as just another footnote to the life of George Washington, had it not been for a lengthy interview she gave many years later in an 1847 issue of William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator. In the article she detailed the events of 1796 from her point of view, which had never before been known, though she never gave up the name of the Nancy's captain nor crew, nor the names of anyone else --including many free Black people in both Pennsylvania and in New Hampshire-- who had aided her. This very month (March 2023) a mural to Judge's bravery is underway in Portsmouth as part of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire:


Which brings me back to my earlier point about "divisive concepts" legislation and its stated intent --and the hard, un-ignorable truths that such laws intend to erase from the public discourse. Truths such as the fact that it is not possible to study, in any meaningful way, anything about the administration of our country's literal first President, nor his time in office, without eventually bumping up against the reality of Oney Judge and what she endured. The phrase "Black history is American history" is neither hyperbole nor a trendy slogan --it is an objective fact. And even as Women's History Month 2023 draws to a close, I can assure you that this art series will continue to throw light on that fact. For as long as it needs to.

The site of the former President's House is now a National Park Service attraction in Philadelphia --and refreshingly, it makes no attempt to hand-wave nor downplay the historical role played by Oney Judge Staines and her fellow enslaved persons: https://www.nps.gov/inde/planyourvisit/presidentshousesite.htm

To that recommendation I would also add the book Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar.

Grateful thanks to the Racial Justice Think Tank of New Hampshire for their
contributions and suggestions, for this and a great many upcoming biographies.

Next page - Lesson 124: Constance Mitchell

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