Never Caught: A New American Hero

Photos by Brandon Parigo, Strategic Marketing and Communications

Historian and author Erica Armstrong Dunbar examines presidential power and long history of social injustice that mark America’s past

During the 2018 Social Justice Lecture, more than 200 people from the campus and Kansas City communities gathered to hear Erica Armstrong Dunbar recount Ona Judge’s story and think critically about our country’s complex narrative. Through the eyes of Judge, Dunbar pieces together the bigger story of enslaved people during the founding of the nation.

While researching another project, Dunbar came across an advertisement in a newspaper from 1796 offering a $10 reward for the return of a runaway slave “absconded from the household of the President of the United States.” With slavery nearly obsolete in Philadelphia in the 1790s and the unusual message of the ad, Dunbar vowed to return to the notice.



For nine years, she worked to uncover the story of Judge. What she found was “one of the most understudied runaway slaves in history” and the subject of her second book, “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.”

Dunbar says nearly every student educated in the U.S. gets taught a version of our nation’s history. The first president, George Washington, is referred to as father of the country, praised for his leadership and character but glossed over is his commitment to slavery.

After moving to Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital, President Washington learned of a law requiring slaveholders to free their slaves after six months. In an effort to circumvent the law, Washington would send his slaves south every six months to reset the clock. Judge, who saw free black Philadelphians throughout the city, made the decision to escape.

Although Judge was never caught, she was pursued by the Washingtons for the remainder of their lives. While her escape is a heroic tale detailed in Dunbar’s book, the surprising part is the lengths to which the Washingtons would go to recapture her and the absence of this narrative in the recollections of U.S. history.



About Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Dunbar is the Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Black Studies and History at the University of Delaware. She has been the recipient of Ford, Mellon and Social Science Research Council fellowships and is an Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer. Her first book “A Fragile American Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City,” was published by Yale University Press in 2008.

About the Social Justice Book and Lecture Series

The UMKC Division of Diversity and Inclusion’s Social Justice Book and Lecture Series brings to campus thought leaders from across the country and various fields to explore issues of social justice with our students, faculty and staff. The objectives of the series are to:

  • Foster a sense of community on our campus through shared literature and relevant dialogue.
  • Prompt participants to think critically about the historical context of social justice issues while focusing on current social justice challenges and the interdisciplinary thought and leadership skills necessary for solving such challenges.
  • Provide a platform for further reflection, dialogue and action within our campus and greater communities through related coursework, gatherings and exposure to local, regional and national social justice projects and initiatives.

| Article by Julie Bunge, Strategic Marketing and Communications


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