The historian, professor, author discusses her new book NEVER CAUGHT: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.
Author and Professor Erica Armstrong Dunbar
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Decades before the underground railroad offered safe houses for slaves escaping to freedom, one young woman broke free. Ona Judge was born a slave and considered the property of the first president of the United States, George Washington.
Tonight we’ll learn more from historian, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, wo uncovers her story in the new book, “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge”.
And then actor-comedian, Cheech Marin, joins us to discuss his new memoir. It’s called “Cheech is Not My Real Name, But Don’t Call me Chong!”.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. All of that coming up right now.
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Tavis: Professor Erica Armstrong Dunbar is a historian and author. Her latest book is called “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge”.
It examines the life of the slave who escaped from the home of America’s first First Family in intricate detail and provides a new look at George Washington’s relationship to slavery. I am delighted that he did it, and I’m honored to have her on this program. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Erica Armstrong Dunbar: Thank you.
Tavis: This book gives us a new way of seeing George Washington. Tell me more.
Dunbar: It does. You know, it was my goal when I wrote this book to tell a story about the founding of the nation, but through the eyes of the enslaved, not through a sort of typical founding fathers. So Ona Judge’s life gives us the ability to do that. She moves throughout the new nation and gives us a kind of portal into the South, the Mid-Atlantic and the North.
Tavis: I was whispering to you — I wasn’t whispering. I was saying to you when you came on the set that it was fascinating for me to see the extent to which George Washington told on himself with the almanac or the copious notes basically he was taking every day about his life and his goings and comings, what he was doing.
But I thought about all the historians over the years who have pored over these same notes and didn’t find what you found. So it’s a great testament to you, but tell me about Ona Judge.
Dunbar: Yeah. I’m glad that George Washington left so many notes.
Tavis: Told on himself, yeah [laugh].
Dunbar: It helped with this book and it allowed me to sort of read between the lines. I think all of us who do African American history and women’s history, we have to do that because the archives are not spaces in which we find ourselves present.
So we often have to read between the lines and, in some ways, I did that with “Never Caught”. But, fortunately, Ona gave us her voice. She left two interviews at the end of her life, so I could use both her interviews and the words of others to put together her life.
And she was representative of one of the people born at Mount Vernon, born sometimes in 1773 or ’74. We don’t know exactly when because Washington didn’t record the birth date of the enslaved. We know that she was the daughter of an enslaved woman who was technically owned by Martha Washington.
So Ona and her mother, Betty, were the human property of Martha Washington. Her father was an indentured servant, a white man named Andrew Judge, and Washington had purchased his indenture agreement. He was a tailor. Ona’s mother was a seamstress and, at some point, Ona was born.
By about the age of 10, she’s brought up to the mansion house to become basically a house slave to learn the trade of being a seamstress and doing domestic work and kind of moves up the ranks and becomes Martha Washington’s top slave.
So the moment that George Washington is elected president, the Washingtons have to decide if they’ll bring slaves and they decide to bring slaves with them to New York. They choose seven people, seven enslaved men and women, five men, two women, and Ona was one of them. And that begins her trip to the North.
Tavis: Keep going [laugh]. We’re just getting good, just getting good now.
Dunbar: This is a good part.
Tavis: Keep going, yeah.
Dunbar: She arrives in New York in 1789 and it’s the first time she’s out of the slave south, but it’s a place where slavery still exists, but so does Black freedom. Their stay in New York is brief. The nation’s capitol moves to Philadelphia in 1790, so she actually spends the next six years in Philadelphia, which was the epicenter of Black freedom at that moment in time.
No other place had as many free Black people in the city and she watched this. So here she is brought sort of as an enslaved person and she’s in the minority. Around her, she sees Black men and women as entrepreneurs building churches like Mother Bethel Church, and she sees this. She witnesses it and, at this moment, where she’s coming of age.
So no matter what the Washingtons try to do, and they are very thoughtful and careful about keeping their enslaved people enslaved people, and in Philadelphia, that becomes tricky. George and Martha Washington have to figure out how to work around the law to keep their slaves in the city.
Tavis: When I read in your text what they did — you’re being charitable here — when I read what they did to get around the law because the law in that state, as I recall, was that you had to free your slaves after six months. So tell the story of what George and Martha figured out to do to get around that.
Dunbar: Yeah. They had to be careful and quickly. The laws were different in Pennsylvania than they were in New York. The law stated that, if you were a non-resident, you had to emancipate your slaves after six months. They couldn’t stay longer than that.
So George and Martha Washington — and all of this is written in correspondence between George Washington, his secretary, Tobias Lear, as well as Martha Washington. They basically came up with a rotation plan, a slave rotation plan, where they would rotate their slaves from Pennsylvania to Virginia every six months in order to avoid the law.
So what I say is he’s not necessarily breaking the law, but he’s breaking the spirit of the law in order to maintain his property.
Tavis: This as president [laugh].
Dunbar: Yes, yes [laugh].
Tavis: It’s not funny, but it is. What then — I don’t want to give the whole story away, but what then occasions the opportunity for Ona to get free from them? Because we all heard you say a moment ago how she’s seeing all this freedom in Philadelphia. I for one believe that courage is contagious. When people get a taste of that and they get a sense of that, they know what their lives ought to represent.
So as far as I read your book, and I’m going through it, it’s just a matter of time. I know how the story ends, of course, but it’s just a matter of time because she’s seen what life can be. So what occasions the opportunity for her to break free of the Washingtons?
Dunbar: So, you know, she’s around this freedom for years, but there is a crucial moment in the spring of 1796 that changes Ona’s life. There are two things that are happening. One, George Washington decides not to run for a third term in office. His family knows it, the public does not yet.
So all who were enslaved — and at this point, there are up to nine people enslaved in Philadelphia — they know eventually they are going back to Mount Vernon and this doesn’t really sit well with Ona Judge.
But the real trigger is the moment she finds out that there’s going to be a change in her ownership and that one of Martha Washington’s grandchildren, a grandchild from her first marriage — Martha Washington was married once before George Washington –her granddaughter had sort of rushed into a hurried marriage.
She worried about her and she made the decision that she would give Ona away as a wedding gift. And when Ona catches wind of this, the trigger was pulled. She says in her interview later on in her life that she would never be her slave.
So she knew Eliza Parke Custis Law and she knew that this was a woman her age who had a reputation for being kind of volcanic. And the years in the North and knowing that her ownership would change made Ona really make the decision to free herself.
Tavis: All right. So I’m not going to give the whole story away, and I’ve only got a minute to go anyway. So you’ll get the book and you’ll read what she did and how she got away. But I do want to advance very quickly to this question.
How, as the book suggests, “Never Caught”, without telling the story of where she went and how she got away and who helped her, how did she never get caught? Because she lived 50 years past Martha and George Washington. How did she never get caught?
Dunbar: Yeah. She spends nearly half a century as a fugitive. You know, it was her courage. It was her bravery, but also it was the help of the free Black community that harbored her, that kept her safe in the tradition of what we know later on is an underground railroad of people who put themselves in jeopardy in order to help runaways.
And that was Ona and it was the free Black community. It was white men and women and the location to which she ran that kept her safe. I think what’s so incredible about this story is that, for really the rest of George Washington’s life, he pursued her.
So no matter how long he lived or how long Martha Washington lived, Ona Judge knew that she was someone else’s property and she remained that for the entirety of her life and also meant her children were also never to be free.
Tavis: Sounds like a movie to me. How about we call it “The Fugitive” [laugh]? I digress. It’s a powerful story and this one ought to be a movie. I think of the movie, “Hidden Figures” and how empowering that story was.
And it just reminds me there are so many stories like these that we just don’t know. But it’s because of historians like you who take the time to dig it up and to unearth it that we are so appreciative. So thank you for writing the book.
Dunbar: It’s an honor.
Tavis: It’s called “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge”. A good read. I highly recommend it. Up next on this program, actor and comedian Cheech Marin, with his memoir. Stay with us.
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