As President’s Day rolls around again this year, many schools around the nation will continue to embellish and whitewash the mythology of George Washington, the so-called “Father of our Country.” Several years ago, I wrote a response to this burnishing of his image in “George Washington is not my 'Great White Father'” wherein I discussed his history as a slaveholder. Since that time new research has been published by Erica Armstrong Dunbar, professor of Black American studies and history at the University of Delaware. It should be read by anyone seeking a view of American history through the eyes of the enslaved, rather than solely through the perspective of the enslavers and their apologist biographers.
Armstrong Dunbar’s book is Never Caught. The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.
A startling and eye-opening look into America’s First Family, Never Caught is the powerful narrative of Ona Judge, George and Martha Washington’s runaway slave who risked it all to escape the nation’s capital and reach freedom. When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left behind his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation’s capital, after a brief stay in New York. In setting up his household he took Tobias Lear, his celebrated secretary, and nine slaves, including Ona Judge, about which little has been written. As he grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change he couldn’t get his arms around: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to circumvent the law. Every six months he sent the slaves back down south just as the clock was about to expire. Though Ona Judge lived a life of relative comfort, the few pleasantries she was afforded were nothing compared to freedom, a glimpse of which she encountered first-hand in Philadelphia. So, when the opportunity presented itself one clear and pleasant spring day in Philadelphia, Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England. Yet freedom would not come without its costs. At just twenty-two-years-old, Ona became the subject of an intense manhunt led by George Washington, who used his political and personal contacts to recapture his property.
Armstrong Dunbar was interviewed recently by Ibram X. Kendi, associate editor of Black Perspectives, assistant professor of history at the University of Florida, and author of the 2016 National Book Award winner for nonfiction, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.
Ibram X. Kendi: What are the principal findings of Never Caught? What do you hope readers take away from reading it?
Erica Armstrong Dunbar: Never Caught introduces one of the most understudied fugitive slaves in America. At the age of twenty-two, Ona Judge stole herself from George and Martha Washington, forcing the president to show his slave-catching hand. As a fugitive, Judge would test the president’s will and reputation. The most important man in the nation, heralded with winning the American Revolution, could not reclaim the bondswoman. Ona Judge did what no one else could do: she beat the president. Judge was never caught. The book introduces a new American hero, an enslaved girl raised at Mount Vernon who, once exposed to the ideas of freedom, was compelled to pursue them at any cost. This was a woman who found the courage to defy the President of the United States, the wit to find allies, to escape, to out-negotiate, to run, and to survive. Judge’s life exposes the sting of slavery and the drive of defiance. Ona Judge left behind the only existing account/narrative of a fugitive once held by the Washingtons. It appears to be the only fugitive account from any slave in eighteenth–century Virginia. This book changes the traditional narrative about runaways and adds to a growing literature about the lives of fugitives. It is a unique project in that it examines the life of someone who escaped slavery before the era of the “Underground Railroad.” It forces scholars to reimagine the institution of slavery and more importantly, it prompts scholars to reimagine black freedom in the early decades of the nineteenth century.
Themes such as gender, race, and work are central to Never Caught. However, it also examines the slippery area of fugitive status as well as the dismantling of slavery throughout the North. This project will prove valuable to historians who engage in work centered upon the era of the early republic and to those who engage in the broad interdisciplinary fields of Women’s Studies and Africana Studies. By focusing upon the life of Ona Judge Staines, I am able to unpack the serious questions and themes surrounding family and kinship networks, marriage, health, childrearing, and economic security for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century African Americans. Never Caught examines all of these issues through the lens of an enslaved runaway.
Here is the text of an advertisement placed in order to find Oney Judge:
Absconded from the household of the President of the United States, ONEY JUDGE, a light mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes and bushy hair. She is of middle stature, slender, and delicately formed, about 20 years of age.
She has many changes of good clothes, of all sorts, but they are not sufficiently recollected to be described—As there was no suspicion of her going off, nor no provocation to do so, it is not easy to conjecture whither she has gone, or fully, what her design is; but as she may attempt to escape by water, all masters of vessels are cautioned against admitting her into them, although it is probable she will attempt to pass for a free woman, and has, it is said, wherewithal to pay her passage.
Ten dollars will be paid to any person who will bring her home, if taken in the city, or on board any vessel in the harbour;—and a reasonable additional sum if apprehended at, and brought from a greater distance, and in proportion to the distance.
FREDERICK KITT, Steward. May 23
The “nor provocation to do so” line in this ad is gag-worthy, as if being in bondage and being told you would be given away as a present isn’t provoking.
Bucolic scenes of Washington’s life as a planter were de rigueur at the time:
The Library of Congress description of this pastoral scene is “Washington standing among African-American field workers harvesting grain; Mt. Vernon in background.” Hello— they were enslaved humans. People in bondage, not simply field hands.
In a 2015 New York Times op-ed titled “George Washington, Slave Catcher,” Armstrong Dunbar wrote:
When he was 11 years old, Washington inherited 10 slaves from his father’s estate. He continued to acquire slaves — some through the death of family members and others through direct purchase. Washington’s cache of enslaved people peaked in 1759 when he married the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis. His new wife brought more than 80 slaves to the estate at Mount Vernon. On the eve of the American Revolution, nearly 150 souls were counted as part of the property there.
In 1789, Washington became the first president of the United States, a planter president who used and sanctioned black slavery. Washington needed slave labor to maintain his wealth, his lifestyle and his reputation. As he aged, Washington flirted with attempts to extricate himself from the murderous institution — “to get quit of Negroes,” as he famously wrote in 1778. But he never did. During the president’s two terms in office, the Washingtons relocated first to New York and then to Philadelphia. Although slavery had steadily declined in the North, the Washingtons decided that they could not live without it. Once settled in Philadelphia, Washington encountered his first roadblock to slave ownership in the region — Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780.
The act began dismantling slavery, eventually releasing people from bondage after their 28th birthdays. Under the law, any slave who entered Pennsylvania with an owner and lived in the state for longer than six months would be set free automatically. This presented a problem for the new president. Washington developed a canny strategy that would protect his property and allow him to avoid public scrutiny. Every six months, the president’s slaves would travel back to Mount Vernon or would journey with Mrs. Washington outside the boundaries of the state. In essence, the Washingtons reset the clock. The president was secretive when writing to his personal secretary Tobias Lear in 1791: “I request that these Sentiments and this advise may be known to none but yourself & Mrs. Washington.” The president went on to support policies that would protect slave owners who had invested money in black lives. In 1793, Washington signed the first fugitive slave law, which allowed fugitives to be seized in any state, tried and returned to their owners. Anyone who harbored or assisted a fugitive faced a $500 penalty and possible imprisonment.
In recent years black storytellers of history like Gwendolyn Quezaire-Presutti have attempted to set the record straight.
As Ona Judge in 1846 she is being interviewed regarding her life as an enslaved person living in the home of George and Martha Washington and her struggle to maintain a life in Greenland, NH. She provides an alternative viewpoint and experience on the nation’s social, political and economic development and how it is at odds with the principles embodied in the nation’s founding documents.
The life and times of George and Martha and those they enslaved have also been the subject of satire.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, check out Azie Mira Dungey’s web series.
Ask A Slave, a biting, satirical Web series in which one of George Washington’s house maids, Lizzie Mae, answers the burning questions of visitors to Mount Vernon, caught on quickly, and for good reason. The series is based on the real experiences of the show’s creator and star Azie Mira Dungey, who used to portray a slave at the historic Washington estate. The ridiculous questions Lizzie Mae is asked by predominantly white visitors will amuse and appall you at the same time. “How did you get to be house maid for such a distinguished founding father?” one clueless old man from Indiana asks in the first episode. “Did you see the advertisement in the newspaper?”
On a more serious note, Mount Vernon—once the Washingtons’ home and now a tourist attraction—has been the subject of criticism for decades, not only from descendants of those people enslaved by Washington, but also from historians and scholars. One of the more biting critiques can be read at the Zinn Education Project, written by Professor Sudie Hofmann:
A delightful and energetic guide met our group at the Mansion Circle for a 15-minute overview of slavery. The emphasis in this tour, and prevalent throughout the estate, was that the Washingtons were in some ways providing vocational education to the people they enslaved. Returning to the prime motivation for slavery as a profit-making venture, one needs to be cognizant that George and Martha were the ones who reaped the benefits from training enslaved people in certain trades. The profit certainly did not go, in any part, to people held in bondage at Mount Vernon. Another theme within this tour and the signage throughout the estate was that this was a community of people willingly working toward a common goal, in an almost “whistle while you work” fashion. The astounding inequality was largely ignored. The tour’s narration instead focused on the beauty of the land, the panoramic view over the Potomac, and the warm breezes. The signage and tour create an image of an estate where everyone was happy.
The guide told tourists that the slaves engaged in trickery with the estate managers when they sang songs in their native languages to warn others that a manager was near. The guide said the slaves would sleep and relax in the shade when no one was around and then the songs would alert them to get up and pretend to be working. He also said, “Slaves could be clever. A new ax could be given to them in the morning and they would make sure to break it by the afternoon. They knew how to get back at plantation owners.” He did acknowledge that there was no “incentive to work” and that being “lazy was OK.” Rather than educating our group about resistance and the need for it, he characterized the men and women as shiftless and conniving.
The guide proceeded to cover the innovative agricultural techniques used on the farm and the high standards Washington demanded. A plaque at the slave quarters states, “The sun never caught George Washington in bed and he was unwilling it should find any of his people sleeping.” At the conclusion of the tour on the front lawn overlooking the Potomac, the guide summarized his message about slavery: “Anyone from the 21st century criticizing someone from the 18th century is being sanctimonious, righteous, and unfair.” He ignored the fact that during “Washington’s time,” abolitionist groups visited Mount Vernon bearing books and petitions about emancipation, as well as the establishment of manumission societies, humanitarian efforts, writers, and Quaker groups, working to stop the practice of slavery. One needn’t rely on 21st-century critics of slavery; they existed in the 18th century, too.
In 2016 Mount Vernon opened a new exhibition entitled “Lives Bound Together," which places emphasis on Washington's “changing attitudes towards slavery”—propped up by references to his will, which left his slaves to Martha and instructed her to free them when she died.
There are real problems with the framing as Washington himself wasn't bound, nor whipped, nor sold. Nor is it worth cheering for the much-lauded future emancipations. George and Martha Washington profited on the backs of blacks during their full lives, and those deathbed emancipations were in large part meaningless. They do not give cause to celebrate Washington’s “change of heart.” I know all too well from my own family history of enslavement that freeing a husband or wife when the rest of a family remains enslaved is no true freedom. Read some of the court petitions from free or freed blacks, begging for the freedom of family members, like this one from the Race & Slavery Petitions Project database:
Moses Irvin, a seventy-five-year-old free person of color emancipated for his "faithful services" during the Revolutionary War, seeks to free his wife Harriet and the "two children, which she has born him." Representing that both he and Harriet, whom he purchased, "are far advanced in years," the petitioner "is rendered very unhappy by the situation of his children, who are the persons that he would leave what little he has to, but who are in danger of being seized after his death as vacant property - and confiscated for the use of the State." He therefore "humbly asks your attention to his appeal to your humanity" and "prays that you would be pleased to sanction his children's freedom by allowing them to follow the condition of their father."
For those who would argue that the Washingtons should not be criticized for slaveholding because “that was what was done by that class at that time in history,” I’d like to offer the story of founding father Robert Carter III, known also as "Councillor" Carter, and suggest people read Andrew Levy’s The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves.
Robert Carter III, the grandson of Tidewater legend Robert “King” Carter, was born into the highest circles of Virginia’s Colonial aristocracy. He was neighbor and kin to the Washingtons and Lees and a friend and peer to Thomas Jefferson and George Mason. But on September 5, 1791, Carter severed his ties with this glamorous elite at the stroke of a pen. In a document he called his Deed of Gift, Carter declared his intent to set free nearly five hundred slaves in the largest single act of liberation in the history of American slavery before the Emancipation Proclamation.
My favorite satirical take-down of whitewashed, hypocritical American History comes from George Carlin:
Thank you George! (Carlin, not Washington).