Credit Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times
Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge
Erica Armstrong Dunbar
Atria / 37 INK
MOUNT VERNON, Va. — The costumed characters at George Washington’s gracious estate here are used to handling all manner of awkward queries, whether about 18th-century privies or the first president’s teeth. So when a visitor recently asked an African-American re-enactor in a full skirt and head scarf if she knew Ona Judge, the woman didn’t miss a beat.
Judge’s escape from the presidential residence in Philadelphia in 1796 had been “a great embarrassment to General and Lady Washington,” the woman said, before offering her own view of the matter.
“Ona was born free, like everybody,” she said. “It was this world that made her a slave.”
It’s always 1799 at Mount Vernon, where more than a million visitors annually see the property as it was just before Washington’s death, when his will famously freed all 123 of his slaves. That liberation did not apply to Ona Judge, one of 153 slaves held by Martha Washington.
But Judge, it turned out, evaded the Washingtons’ dogged (and sometimes illegal) efforts to recapture her, and would live quietly in New Hampshire for another 50 years. Now her story — and the challenge it offers to the notion that Washington somehow transcended the seamy reality of slaveholding — is having its fullest airing yet.
Judge is among the 19 enslaved people highlighted in “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon,” the first major exhibition here dedicated to the topic. She is also the subject of a book, “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge,” by Erica Armstrong Dunbar.
Most scholars who have written about Judge’s escape have used it as a lens onto Washington’s evolving ideas about slavery. But “Never Caught,” published on Tuesday by 37 Ink, flips the perspective, focusing on what freedom meant to the people he kept in bondage.
“We have the famous fugitives, like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass,” Ms. Dunbar, a professor of black studies and history at the University of Delaware, said in an interview in Mount Vernon’s 18th-century-style food court. “But decades before them, Ona Judge did this. I want people to know her story.”
Research on slavery has exploded in the two decades since Mount Vernon, Monticello and other founder home sites introduced slavery-themed tours and other prominent acknowledgments of the enslaved. “Lives Bound Together,” which runs through September 2018, was originally going to fill one 1,100-square-foot room in the museum here, but soon expanded to include six other galleries normally dedicated to the decorative and fine arts, books and manuscripts.
“We had so much material, and it’s such an important story,” Susan P. Schoelwer, the curator at Mount Vernon, said. “We realized we could take many of the objects already on view and reframe them.”
The exhibition makes it clear just who poured from the elegant teapots and did the backbreaking work on the 8,000-acre estate. But integrating the harsh reality of slavery into the heroic story of Washington — “a leader of character,” as the title of the permanent exhibition across from the slavery show calls him — remains unfinished work, some scholars say.
“He’s a much more mythic figure than Jefferson,” said Annette Gordon-Reed, the author of “The Hemingses of Monticello” and a Harvard professor. “Many people want to see him as perfect in some way.”
But his determined pursuit of Judge, she said, as much as his will freeing his slaves, reflects the basic mind-set of slave owners. “It’s saying, ‘Whatever I might think about slavery in the abstract, I should be able to do what I want with my property,’” she said.