This year’s 12th Annual Social Justice Lecture, held by the Division of Diversity and Inclusion, told the bigger picture of history by including the stories of those who have been silenced.
Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar was selected for this year’s Social Justice Lecture, with her book “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.”
Dunbar is a highly accredited publisher and the Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of black studies and history at the University of Delaware, as well as an Organization of American Historians distinguished lecturer.
Dunbar was introduced by Dr. Makini King, the director of Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives.
King advocated justice for oppressed voices and brought to light the toxic misrepresentation of history. Using Columbus Day as an example of inaccurate narratives, King reminded the audience that “inclusion takes a pause” to question the high praise given to those in power.
Dunbar spoke about the life and journey of runaway slave Ona Judge, who belonged to former first lady Martha Washington.
Dunbar provided insight on why she is so committed to her work. Her motivation stems from the honor and obligation to rescue black women from archives and to study the lives of forgotten women that challenge prevalent narratives.
Dunbar said she became frustrated when she came across a woman she did not know while conducting her research. Not only was she frustrated as a specialist in black women studies, but because she was unaware of a former presidential family’s pursuit for a runaway slave.
Judge’s story uncovers the truth behind the Washingtons, who are idolized in classroom textbooks as leaders.
These ‘leaders’ lived their daily life by finding loopholes in the legal system to maintain their slaveholding.
Judge is the only known slave to have escaped the Washingtons’ sovereign control.
The Washingtons refused to free their slaves, and only upon George Washington’s death were his slaves freed.
Martha Washington’s slaves were instead dispersed among her grandchildren. Judge saw this reality and ran for her life.
It took Dunbar nine years to piece together Judge’s life, and she did so by diligently cross-referencing sources, reading through an immense amount of journals, letters, and diaries, and corroborating sources to reach expert inferences.
In her book “Never Caught,” this extensive research paints a powerful picture of Judge’s life.
Judge was a fugitive, bounded by law as a piece of property. Her crime was an attempt to be free, and it was a crime the Washingtons would pursue until their death.
Until she died, Judge lived in fear of being recaptured and penalized, and she had to live with the repercussions her family, who remained under the Washingtons’ control, may have faced. Judge was never entirely free from her life as a slave, but the freedom she grasped was worth it.
“Minorities are not priorities in archives but in margins, and are found by teasing the details out,” Dunbar said. “The eyes of Ona become a portal to tell a larger story.”
The historical record will never be complete until stories like that of Ona Judge are rescued from the margins and put into the frontline of today’s historical discussions.