Never Caught: A New Book on George Washington’s Pursuit of His Runaway Slave
This post is part of my blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. February 7 was the official release date for Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, published by Atria / 37 Ink.
The author of Never Caught is Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Professor Dunbar is the Distinguished Blue and Gold Professor of Black Studies and History at the University of Delaware. Her writing, teaching, and lecturing focus on the uncomfortable concepts of slavery, racial injustice, and gender inequality. She has been the recipient of Ford, Mellon, and SSRC fellowships and is an Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer. Her first book, A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City, was published by Yale University Press in 2008.
In 2011, Professor Dunbar was appointed the first director of the Program in African American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia. She has participated in several documentaries, including “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and “The Abolitionists,” an American Experience production on PBS. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and her MA and PhD from Columbia University. Follow Professor Dunbar on Twitter @ericaadunbar.
A startling and eye-opening look into America’s First Family, Never Caught is the powerful narrative of Ona Judge, George and Martha Washington’s runaway slave who risked it all to escape the nation’s capital and reach freedom. When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left behind his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation’s capital, after a brief stay in New York. In setting up his household he took Tobias Lear, his celebrated secretary, and nine slaves, including Ona Judge, about which little has been written. As he grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change he couldn’t get his arms around: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to circumvent the law. Every six months he sent the slaves back down south just as the clock was about to expire.
Though Ona Judge lived a life of relative comfort, the few pleasantries she was afforded were nothing compared to freedom, a glimpse of which she encountered first-hand in Philadelphia. So, when the opportunity presented itself one clear and pleasant spring day in Philadelphia, Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England. Yet freedom would not come without its costs. At just twenty-two years old, Ona became the subject of an intense manhunt led by George Washington, who used his political and personal contacts to recapture his property. Impeccably researched, historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar weaves a powerful tale and offers fascinating new scholarship on how one young woman risked it all to gain freedom from the famous founding father.
Totally engrossing and absolutely necessary for understanding the birth of the American Republic, Never Caught is richly human history from the vantage point of the enslaved fifth of the early American population. Here is Ona Judge’s (successful) quest for freedom, on one side, and, on the other, George and Martha Washington’s (vain) use of federal power to try to keep her enslaved.” —Nell Irvin Painter, author of Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol
Ibram X. Kendi: What are the principal findings of Never Caught? What do you hope readers take away from reading it?
Erica Armstrong Dunbar: Never Caught introduces one of the most understudied fugitive slaves in America. At the age of twenty-two, Ona Judge stole herself from George and Martha Washington, forcing the president to show his slave-catching hand. As a fugitive, Judge would test the president’s will and reputation. The most important man in the nation, heralded with winning the American Revolution, could not reclaim the bondswoman. Ona Judge did what no one else could do: she beat the president. Judge was never caught. The book introduces a new American hero, an enslaved girl raised at Mount Vernon who, once exposed to the ideas of freedom, was compelled to pursue them at any cost. This was a woman who found the courage to defy the President of the United States, the wit to find allies, to escape, to out-negotiate, to run, and to survive. Judge’s life exposes the sting of slavery and the drive of defiance. Ona Judge left behind the only existing account/narrative of a fugitive once held by the Washingtons. It appears to be the only fugitive account from any slave in eighteenth–century Virginia. This book changes the traditional narrative about runaways and adds to a growing literature about the lives of fugitives. It is a unique project in that it examines the life of someone who escaped slavery before the era of the “Underground Railroad.” It forces scholars to reimagine the institution of slavery and more importantly, it prompts scholars to reimagine black freedom in the early decades of the nineteenth century.
Themes such as gender, race, and work are central to Never Caught. However, it also examines the slippery area of fugitive status as well as the dismantling of slavery throughout the North. This project will prove valuable to historians who engage in work centered upon the era of the early republic and to those who engage in the broad interdisciplinary fields of Women’s Studies and Africana Studies. By focusing upon the life of Ona Judge Staines, I am able to unpack the serious questions and themes surrounding family and kinship networks, marriage, health, childrearing, and economic security for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century African Americans. Never Caught examines all of these issues through the lens of an enslaved runaway.
Ibram X. Kendi is the associate editor of Black Perspectives. He is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Florida and author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), which won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.