Books Worth Reading Series: Never Caught, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

By Scott Curtis, Teaching & Learning Librarian, Miller Nichols Library

Historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar first encountered the story of Ona Judge Staines about twenty years ago, in the course of doing research for a project related to 19th-century black women in Philadelphia. Her first reaction to seeing an advertisement in the Philadelphia Gazette searching for information leading to the return of a runaway enslaved woman from the household of President George Washington was amazement. Then, she wanted to learn more. Examining a time when the historical records of the lives of individual women were scant to nonexistent, and were even less so for enslaved black women, Dunbar traced Ona Judge through not only these ads seeking her return to George and Martha Washington, but also through correspondence between Washington and the men he enlisted to help him capture his “property,” and in her own words, from two newspaper interviews Judge gave late in her life.

Never Caught places Ona Judge’s story within the context of the practice of slavery in the early United States. Dunbar relates important details capturing the dehumanization of the enslaved, whether in the field or as a domestic servant. The status of the enslaved as “property” and a portion of the Washington/Custis family inheritance plays a significant role in the lengths to which Washington will go to hold onto his slaves.

Washington’s chief of staff, Tobias Lear, made him aware that having his slaves accompany his family to Philadelphia to the President’s House would run afoul of Pennsylvania state law. After six months in Pennsylvania, the enslaved servants could claim their freedom. Washington therefore worked around the law, sending his slaves back to Mount Vernon every six months in order that the clock might “reset” on this ability to claim freedom. This subterfuge may have prevented Washington’s enslaved servants from claiming freedom, but it did not prevent Ona Judge from learning about freedom from free blacks in the Philadelphia community. When Judge learned of Martha Washington’s intention to send her as a wedding present to Martha’s granddaughter, the mercurial Eliza Parke Custis, Judge decided to risk everything on an escape to freedom.

Over the next three years, from the last year of his Presidency through his death in 1799, Washington made repeated attempts to recapture Judge, only to have Judge foil these efforts through her wits, the support of free blacks in the Portsmouth, New Hampshire area where Judge resettled after escaping Philadelphia, and because of her indomitable desire to remain free. Although freedom brought its own hardships in terms of poverty and backbreaking work, Judge never wished for a return to slavery, saying “No, I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means.”

Dunbar’s writing and eye for character and story make her history come alive. In spite of having a short historical record of primary resources related directly to Ona Judge to work from, she crafts a valuable account based upon much ancillary information that fills in the gaps to present a realistic and compelling portrait of a strong black woman who beat the odds and freed herself from the household of President Washington.