A Woman’s Imperative: Ona Judge’s Fight for Freedom

In honor of Women’s History Month in March, discover how an enslaved woman’s escape to freedom brought her from the home of George Washington to the New Hampshire seacoast. This post is written by Dorothy Clark, editorial services manager for Historic New England.

Ona Judge took only what was morally, ethically, and rightfully hers: freedom. Given the law of the land, however, being free was not something to which she was legally entitled. Judge was an African American woman enslaved by the most powerful man in the United States. But she did not let that stop her from executing her imperative to be free.
Never Caught Book Cover

Ona Judge had the audacity to run away from the Philadelphia household of President George Washington and his wife, Martha, on May 21, 1796, and made her way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. To the Washingtons, Judge’s rebellion was the ultimate betrayal. But author Erica Armstrong Dunbar casts Judge as “a new American hero” whose remarkable act of defiance is “a different lens with which to see the nation.”

Dunbar, author of Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, discussed her research into the life of Ona Judge earlier this month at a standing-room-only event on March 5 sponsored by the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail’s Elinor Williams Hooker Tea Talk. The event included living history artist Gwendolyn Quezaire-Presutti’s dramatization of Judge and a tour of Historic New England’s Governor John Langdon House. Langdon, then a U.S. senator and a friend of the Washingtons, played a role in Judge’s story.

The story of Ona Judge puts a spotlight on the hypocrisy inherent in the ideals and tenets that America’s founders expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. That the antagonist of the plot is the first president of the new nation makes it all the more discomforting. Most of the signers of the U.S. Constitution were slave owners. While they did not try to hide that fact, it has gone largely unexamined in the annals of American history.

“I wanted to tell the story of the beginning of the nation through the eyes of a slave,” said Dunbar, adding that she discovered Judge’s story two decades ago while working on a project about African American women and their transition from enslavement to freedom in antebellum Philadelphia. In the course of that research, Dunbar came across an advertisement George Washington had placed in a Philadelphia newspaper offering a $10 reward for the capture of a fugitive girl slave.

Judge was twenty-two years old when she slipped away from the Washingtons’ Executive Mansion and left Philadelphia, making her way to Portsmouth, where the institution of slavery was waning and a community of free blacks existed. Judge had escaped by ship, a secret she finally revealed five decades later in interviews with two abolitionist newspapers. At the time of her escape, Judge had been made Martha Washington’s slave-in-waiting, selected expressly to attend to every detail of the first lady’s life, day in and day out. It was a thankless task she had been forced into at the age of ten.

The Washingtons did not see Judge’s escape coming. Not only was it an embarrassment; it might incite other slaves to rise up. The Washingtons were no doubt dumbfounded and irate that the favored Judge would commit such a crime. The president’s wife needed her “body servant” and the Washingtons were determined to get her back.

“It really was relentless,” Dunbar said of the president’s efforts to have Judge returned to his household and the individuals he tried to enlist in the cause. Among them was Langdon, a signer of the U.S. Constitution and president pro tempore of the nation’s Senate. It was Langdon’s daughter, Elizabeth, who sounded the alert that the president’s fugitive slave was in Portsmouth. Elizabeth was familiar with Judge because of her trips to the Washingtons’ Executive Mansion to visit her friend, the president’s granddaughter Nelly.

Governor John Langdon House

Judge’s whereabouts became known in August 1796 after she and Elizabeth Langdon saw each other on a Portsmouth street. The senator, who seems to have displayed some minor antislavery sentiments though he was not an abolitionist, was, nevertheless, a law-abiding elected official. And it was Langdon’s duty to abide by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793—which, despite having signed it into law, the president took discreet steps to circumvent in order to re-enslave Judge. Langdon, however, also had a responsibility to his constituents, whose opposition to slavery was growing.

According to Dunbar, the senator may have sent word to Judge that Washington was preparing to take her by force if necessary; or perhaps a free black domestic worker at the Langdon home may have warned her. When Washington’s representative came for Judge, she was gone, having fled Portsmouth for nearby Greenland.

“No matter what he does, he is unable to reclaim this woman,” said Dunbar. Washington even had a nephew try to negotiate with Judge to get her to return. She adamantly refused the offer. “What kind of message does that send when you’re the president of the United States and you can’t control one woman?” Dunbar said.

Although she was never caught, Judge was never really free; because of her fugitive status she spent the next fifty years looking over her shoulder, said Dunbar. But in defying an unjust law, Judge—who became Ona Staines after marrying a free black seafarer named Jack and had three children—was never returned to slavery.