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Ona Marie Judge Staines’ Self-Emancipation in Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Feb 22, 2024

Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire will soon unveil a new mural commemorating Ona Judge Staines. Who was she, and what was her relationship to Portsmouth, New Hampshire?

In 2023, the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire unveiled plans to paint a mural of Ona Marie Judge Staines on its Portsmouth, New Hampshire, headquarters. As part of a local History Through Art initiative, the Black Heritage Trail will honor Staines, who bravely escaped the bonds of slavery in the late 1700s. While not yet a household name, Staines’ story is one of courage and self-determination that historians are working to share with the public.

Born enslaved to George and Martha Washington at Mt. Vernon around 1773, Staines was the daughter of a Black enslaved woman and a white indentured servant. She spent her early life on a plantation in forced servitude as Martha’s personal slave. Because of her position, Staines accompanied the family when they traveled to New York and Philadelphia. The Washingtons carefully controlled the amount of time Judge spent in Pennsylvania to skirt a law that automatically emancipated any enslaved person who stayed in the state for six months or longer.

Ona Judge’s story is memorialized with a historical marker at Mt. Vernon, where she was enslaved by George and Martha Washington. Photograph by Devry Becker Jones, September 25, 2021

Escape to Freedom

On May 21, 1796, at the age of twenty-two, Staines slipped out of the family’s Philadelphia residence. She had learned Martha Washington was going to give her as a gift to her eldest granddaughter, who was known to be abusive. Staines escaped with the help of members of Philadelphia’s free Black community, with whom she had built relationships during earlier visits. She hid on a boat destined for Portsmouth. 

In 2022, New Hampshire’s governor declared May 21st Ona Judge Staines Day
to commemorate the date she escaped from the Washingtons’ Philadelphia home.

Infuriated by her escape and worried it would inspire others whom he had enslaved to do the same, George Washington went to great lengths to try to capture Staines and bring her back to Virginia. He failed every time. Staines spent the rest of her life as a free woman in New Hampshire, where she married and had three children.

Never Caught

There are many ways to learn more about Judge’s inspiring story. The most comprehensive account of her journey is detailed in Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s Never Caught: The Washington’s Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave. If you’d like to learn about her with your family or know a budding history enthusiast, there is also a Young Reader’s edition.

Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s account of Ona Judge Staines’ escape from enslavement and George Washington’s “relentless” efforts to return her to bondage is essential reading for all ages.

While the mural celebrating Staines isn’t yet finished, visitors to Portsmouth can learn more about Staines on tours hosted by Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire and at Historic New England’s own Langdon House (open June through October). In both places, visitors enjoy history tours that talk about Staines and Black history of the area, as well as the history of Portsmouth and New Hampshire.

Written by Dr. Alissa Butler, Study Center Manager