Rethinking Resistance: Ona Judge, The Washingtons’ Runaway Slave and the Meaning of Escape

By Meghan Schmitt '19 | February 5, 2018

Dr.Erica Armstrong Dunbar at the podium

“What does freedom mean when slavery still exists?” Historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Ph.D., posed this question at the keynote presentation for her novel Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge on January 23 at the Dana Center. 

Dunbar discussed the life of Ona Judge on a panel with professors Jennifer Thorn and Beth Salerno. She emphasized that although Ona Judge lived most of her life as a “free” black woman, she was constantly looking over her shoulder, perpetually on the run from the President of the United States.

Ona’s escape would not have been the tale of Dunbar’s novel had it not been for the free-black communities in Philadelphia and New Hampshire. They risked their own safety by defying the federal government and abetting a fugitive, giving Ona Judge her infamous title of “Never Caught.”

Dunbar also gave a critical deconstruction of the oxymoronic, mythical term, “benevolent slaveowner,” when addressing the reasoning behind Ona’s escape. President Washington did not have a paternal relationship with Ona, nor did Martha Washington “treat her like family” because she worked within the house. Instead, Ona was expected to be at Martha’s beck and call every hour, day or night, to complete the strenuous tasks they asked of her, and to tolerate every angry outburst she witnessed.

The Washingtons never cared for Ona beyond her skill, work, and compliance. Her breaking point came when they decided to move her to their tempestuous, newly-wedded granddaughter, Eliza Parke Custis. According to Dunbar, Ona fled the house in Philadelphia, choosing uncertainty over “a life of misery and poor treatment.”

Dunbar spent years researching letters and documents about Ona Judge. When asked about the most rewarding aspect of her research, Dunbar replied, “I walked away with the ability to watch humans develop over time. Ona develops through her story, so does Washington. I had the sense that I was watching humanity play out.” 

Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge is the second novel written by Dunbar, following her first book, A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City. She is a remarkable author, and through her dedication, Ona Judge will be remembered throughout history.