The Slave Who Outwitted the Washington's

Updated: Feb 10

When ONA MARIA JUDGE was 22, she plotted to secure her freedom from enslavement to the most powerful couple in the nation---President and Mrs. George Washington.


Ona Maria WHO?


I’d never heard of her before last summer, when I discovered and became engrossed with her story.

She didn’t just flee enslavement from the Washington's. Despite their prestige, power, and financial resources ---they were unable to recapture her.


She was NEVER caught!


Here are some details of her story…..


During Washington’s first term the nation's capitol moved from New York to Philadelphia. This proved problematic for the slave owning president because Philadelphia was a hot bed of abolitionist activity. The law stated that any enslaved individual residing there for more than six months could petition for freedom!

When the Washington’s learned of this threat to ownership of their human “property”, they orchestrated a plan to ensure that the hands of the clock of bondage were routinely reset BEFORE the 6 month deadline was reached.


They concocted excuses to justify rotating their slaves OUT of Philadelphia every 6 months.

The excuses were created to maintain secrecy. It was essential to keep the slaves they’d brought with them, ignorant of the local law that dangled the lure of freedom within reach.


Ona’s story is intriguing because she was the personal maidservant and seamstress of Martha Washington. She was highly skilled and never worked as a field hand.


Serving the first lady of the nation, Ona was exposed to elite living that would’ve been foreign to most slaves. She dressed in finery befitting a skilled servant of the first lady. She accompanied her mistress to the theater, balls, formal dinners, and high society events.


But the sweet aroma of liberty that permeated the Philadelphia air, eventually made its way to Ona’s nostrils. During the seven years she served in the Capitol, she grew increasingly intoxicated by the smell of freedom. Most Black Philadelphians were NOT enslaved. They were free. Ona transitioned from life at Mt Vernon, a plantation with close to 300 slaves, to a city where enslaved blacks were the MINORITY. At the time, Philadelphia had fewer than 100 slaves.


The song of freedom that called to her soul hit a sharp crescendo, as Washington's 2nd term drew to a close. When Ona learned she was to be gifted to Martha Washington’s temperamental granddaughter as a wedding present, it solidified her resolve to break free.


That discovery was a harsh reminder to Ona of a somber reality for every slave. No matter how privileged their status, they were property; as easily sold, gifted, or transferred as an inanimate object. She knew escape would be near impossible once she returned to Virginia, so she seized the opportunity afforded by her geographic location.


Aided by free black friends, she fled one May evening as the Washington’s ate dinner. She ultimately settled in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She met and married a free black man, learned to read, had three children, and built a life for herself as a domestic worker.


The Washington’s offered substantial rewards for her capture and made many failed attempts to find her.

Incensed and embarrassed by her “disloyalty”, they failed to understand why a slave exposed to the elite life Ona experienced, would risk escape to an uncertain future. Their confusion (as evidenced by letters they wrote about the matter) speaks volumes about the blinders of racism.


They did not deem her worthy of the freedom they enjoyed, “freedom” upon which the country was ostensibly founded. They felt she should’ve remained loyally enslaved, appreciative of the niceties to which they exposed her while serving them.


When interviewed, near the end of her life, about the choice to subject herself to domestic toil in freedom, rather than remaining enslaved in luxury, Ona made it clear that freedom is a choice she never regretted.


I learned her story as a part of my quest to learn history to which I’d not been previously exposed. I’m grateful to know the story of her valiant effort to alter her destiny, change her story, and write a new ending!


“The more you know of your history, the more liberated you are.”—Maya Angelou




Reference: "Never Caught" by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

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