Photo credits: Rembrandt Peale
Ona Judge, an enslaved Black woman who had “absconded from the home of the President of the United States,” George Washington, was advertised in a newspaper on May 23, 1796.
Ms. Judge had escaped slavery two days before, escaping Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and settling in New Hampshire. Ms. Judge, who was called “Oney” by the Washingtons, was “gifted” to First Lady Martha Washington by her father and had been enslaved as part of the Washington estate since she was 10 years of age.
As George Washington’s political power grew, Ms. Judge accompanied him and his family to states with differing slavery laws, including a protracted stay in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 clearly stated that Black persons enslaved by non-residents of the state were legally emancipated after six months of constant residence in the state.
The Washingtons often transferred Ms. Judge and other slaves owned by their family out of state for short periods to reset the six-month residence requirement in order to circumvent enforcement of the law and prevent the men and women they enslaved from being legally liberated.
When Martha Washington’s oldest granddaughter, Eliza Custis, was wedded, Mrs. Washington pledged in her will to give Ms. Judge to the new spouse as a “present.”Ms. Judge was worried that she would remain enslaved even after Martha Washington died, so she decided to escape in 1796.
Ms. Judge fled from Philadelphia on a ship bound for Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on the night of May 21, when the Washingtons were preparing to return to Mt. Vernon. She had made many enslaved friends in Philadelphia. These friends assisted her in sending her goods to New Hampshire prior to actually fleeing.
The Washingtons attempted to catch Ms. Judge on multiple occasions, employing headhunters and placing runaway advertising like as the one sent on May 23. “A pale mulatto girl, considerably freckled, with extremely Black eyes and bushy Black hair,” the ad said.
She is around 20 years old, of medium size, thin, and finely made.” SThe Washingtons issued a $10 bounty for Ms. Judge’s return to bondage. However, she managed to elude arrest, marry, and have numerous children. She lived in freedom inside New Hampshire for more than 50 years.
On February 25, 1848, she died in that U.S. state as a free woman.