Photo credits: John Kopp/Philly Voice
Ona Judge (shown), known as “Oney” by President George Washington’s family, was born in 1774 at Mount Vernon, New Hampshire.
Betty, an enslaved seamstress who was confined at the Mansion House Farm, and Andrew Judge, a white English tailor employed by President George Washington from 1772 until 1784, were Ona’s parents. “A light mulatto girl,” she was subsequently characterized as having “a lot of freckles.” Ona was given a house-based position in the family, as were many other mixed-race slaves. She started working as a personal maid for First Lady Martha Washington when she was just 10 years old. Ona, like her mother, was a gifted seamstress.
Martha Washington dubbed her “the ideal mistress of her needle.”
Ona and her younger sister Delphy, like their mother, were members of the Custis Estate (Mrs. Washington’s first husband’s family). Upon Martha Washington’s death, this would pass to Delphy to heirs. Mrs. Washington pledged to give Ona to the young spouse as a “gift” in her will when her oldest granddaughter, Eliza Custis, married.
However, Ona opted to flee bondage because she was afraid she would be enslaved even after Martha Washington died. She escaped from Philadelphia aboard a ship bound for Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on the night of May 21, 1796, when the Washingtons were preparing to return to Mt. Vernon. She had made many enslaved persons her friends in Philadelphia. Before her escape, they assisted her in shipping her personal belongings to New Hampshire.
Ona was unlikely to see her Mount Vernon relatives again. Betty, her mother, passed away in January 1795. Eliza Parke Custis Law inherited her younger sister Delphy in 1802, a situation Ona had hoped to escape. Ona Judge’s drive to free herself from slavery outweighed any regrets she had about leaving.
According to the Washington Library, one interviewer said:
When asked whether she regrets leaving Washington since she has worked so much harder since then, she says, “No, I am free, and by the means, I believe I have been made a child of God.'”
Her name was changed to Ona Staines after she got married. In 1848, she passed away a free woman.