Photograph by Whitney Thomas.

“Absconded from the household of the President of the United States on Saturday afternoon, ONEY JUDGE,” read the advertisement in Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser on May 24, 1796. Decades later, she would reappear in abolitionist newspapers the Granite Freeman and the Liberator to tell her own story of her escape.

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In Never Caught, professor Erica Armstrong Dunbar reconstructs as best she can the life of a woman who was intimately connected with the American’s first family, but whose story is much less well known. When George Washington took his place as chief executive, Ona was among the enslaved brought from Mount Vernon, as Martha Washington’s personal attendant. She was with the family as they followed the nation’s capitol from New York to Philadelphia. Her time in Pennsylvania technically should have brought her liberty, as adult slaves within the state for more than six months were supposed to be set free; instead, the Washingtons began shuttling Ona and her fellow enslaved back and forth between Philadelphia and Mount Vernon.

Finally, in 1796, facing the prospect of being blithely handed over to Martha Washington’s granddaughter as a wedding gift, she decided to run. Her life thereafter was hard, but Washington and his heirs never managed to track her down.

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With Never Caught, Dunbar uses the life of Ona Judge to tell the story of slavery in early America, providing a new perspective on the nation’s earliest days. We discussed how she went about telling Ona’s story; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

JEZEBEL: How did you initially find the story of Ona Judge?

Erica Armstrong Dunbar: I was working on my first book, A Fragile Freedom, and I was in the archives looking through old newspapers. I wanted to see what everyday life was like in the late 18th century—what was in the newspaper, what were people reading. So I was reading through old newspapers and was reading one that was called The Philadelphia Gazette, and I came across a runaway slave advertisement. And I thought, huh, okay, well, there were runaway slave advertisements in the papers at this point in time. That’s not particularly odd. But I realized that it was from the President’s House and I thought, okay, this is really interesting. The ad goes on to describe a woman they called Oney Judge—I believe that was the diminutive of her name, and I call her Ona, that’s the name she went by toward the end of her life and a marker of adult dignity. I thought, okay, why don’t I know this story? Why don’t I know this woman’s name? What happened to her?

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In many ways the story was with me for years. I couldn’t let go of it. I couldn’t shake it. And so I returned to it. And all in all, the book took about nine years of researching and writing in order to complete.

As a historian, how do you go about reconstructing the life of someone who—partly as a function of the way the institution of slavery worked and partly by design because she was technically a fugitive for her whole life—left so few traces?

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It’s hard!

You know, I thought to myself when I first started the project, “Why has no one written on her? This is crazy. It’s an enslaved woman who ran off from the Washingtons and left interviews!” And about three years into the project I realized, oh, nobody’s done this because it’s really hard, because she’s a fugitive and she lived a very clandestine life for nearly half a century.

Fortunately, she left interviews, which for most of the enslaved did not happen and is a rarity and we’re fortunate that we have those. But the other piece is that George Washington kept fantastic records of everyday life at Mount Vernon, in Philadelphia, in New York, and those records allowed me to piece together more of what was happening, on the everyday level, through Ona’s escape. For black people, for women in particular, we often don’t find ourselves, our voices, in the archives, and we don’t find them there because for the most part, many of us were illiterate or distanced from writing or leaving a written word, and that’s how historians write history. For me, or for anyone who does the history of the enslaved or women, we often have to read between the lines the stuff that is actually not present. There’s no way I could have written Never Caught had I not written my first book, A Fragile Freedom, which was about how black women became free in the north, and I was looking specifically at Philadelphia. So in those spaces where I didn’t necessarily have a piece of evidence, I could speculate—and I’m very careful to make certain that people understand where I’m speculating about Ona’s life—in part because that’s my field, I’m an expert in 19th century black women’s history.

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And so all of these things came together, which is careful record examinations, understanding the nuances in black women’s lives at that time period and also just spending a lot of time trying to trace family lineage, her background, and that also just takes a tremendous amount of time. And then trying to piece together, which was the most difficult part, her life in New Hampshire, because she was undercover for most of it. But I did have those moments of triumph where I found documents in the archives that let me show the reader, look, this is when she marries, and this is who she marries, and much of it came from announcements in the paper or obituaries or county records. These were the things that allowed me to bring these little shards, these fragments of a story to kind of bring them together.

You’re a historian, but you’re really a detective when you’re writing this kind of work.

George Washington, Martha Washington, and Martha’s two children from a previous marriage, circa 1761. Photo via Getty Images.

She runs away from the President’s house. What was her position within the President’s house?

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So, Ona Judge and six other enslaved people are taken to New York, where the nation’s first capital is. There are seven enslaved people that go, only two women, and Ona’s one of them. And Ona really becomes, and had already really become, Martha Washington’s top slave, for the lack of a better term or phrase. She was responsible for the most intimate of responsibilities with Martha. She would help her bathe, she would help brush her hair,she would help her with her clothing and her wardrobe. Ona was a seamstress so she used to make Martha Washington’s clothing, but as the kind of pressures of being the First Lady grew, Martha started to wear more store-bought clothing. She was always on call for Martha, so when Martha went on social visits or had people over to visit, Ona was available to help.

One of the things I try to demonstrate in the book is that for what we call a domestic slave, her responsibilities were unyielding. There was very little in the way of free time or space away from the people who called themselves your owner. She more than likely slept in the same room as one of the Washington’s grandchildren, who came to live with them in New York and Philadelphia.

And when she did run off, this infuriated Martha and also was a bit bewildering, as well, to both Martha and George. We see that in the runaway slave advertisement, when they say, basically, we don’t know why she’s run off. For a modern reader, we’re like, well, she was a slave. That’s why she ran off. That’s a good enough reason. But the correspondence that went back and forth, it really demonstrates how the Washingtons thought that they were “benevolent” slaveholders, that they were good slaveholders, that there’s no reason to want to run off. And Ona proved them wrong.

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One of the interesting points your book makes is that, obviously, a lot of our popular narratives about slavery are pretty bad. But there’s this idea that working in the fields was cruel and horrible and backbreaking but working in the house is somehow less bad. But you make it very clear that it’s just a different—

A different bad.

That was one of my goals with the book, was to really dismantle the myth of the house slave and the supposed privileges that came with that position. For so long there’s been this narrative that has the house slave against the field slave. And aside from the fact that they’re horribly stereotypic and not complicated, Ona’s life I think shows us how untrue that really was and that for her, really from the age of 10 up until 22, when she runs away, is pretty much working in the house and learning what it meant to be a “house slave,” someone who was under the constant microscopic watch of their owners. And you know, I make this point in the book, where I say there are no slave quarters to run to when she’s in Philadelphia or New York, where she can visit with friends or laugh or love. None of that is available for her. She is with the Washingtons all of the time and her work is unyielding. And so I’m glad you point out that comment because that was really one of my goals with this book, to show a new understanding and appreciation of what it meant to be a “house slave,” a domestic slave, and working in the house. And Ona’s story gives us that.

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So what’s the event that triggers Ona’s decision to run? Because she’s in Philadelphia and they have this wild scheme where they’re going to circumvent Pennsylvania law by sending them back to Mount Vernon every six months and she finally decides it’s time to take her chances. What finally pushes her to chance it?

I think there are a couple of things that come together that force—that give Ona the agency to take her own life into her hands and direct her life away from the Washingtons. So these events that come together, one, living for seven years in the north and watching black freedom basically in front of her eyes. She sees free black men and women living a life that was almost unimaginable in a place like Mount Vernon and even very different from what she saw in New York. Knowing that she was in the minority, that she was enslaved, maybe one of a hundred or so in Philadelphia, while there are over 6,000 free blacks in the city—she sees that there’s a different way to live life. And she also notes that black men and women, that they’re entrepreneurs, they’re in the streets, they’re selling fresh fruits and vegetables and oysters and pepperpot soup and they’re building Mother Bethel Church around the corner and she sees this with her own eyes. There’s no way the Washingtons could protect her from witnessing black freedom. And I think this was a huge influence on her as she came of age. She grew up in the north, for the most part, at least her young adult years, 16 to 22. She watches this in front of her eyes. It just lays itself bare.

But it’s really the change in her ownership plans that pushes Ona to make a final decision. And what she realizes is that no matter how loyal she believed she had been to Martha Washington, it didn’t matter. Martha Washington had made a decision to give Ona Judge away to her granddaughter, Eliza Park Custis Law. Eliza had announced she was getting married and the Washingtons didn’t know this guy and were concerned and Martha felt she was kind of unprepared for this marriage, which in the end was sort of true. So she said, well, I can’t be there to help, but I’m going to give her my very best slave, sort of as a wedding gift.

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We’re not quite certain exactly how Ona catches wind of this but she knows at some point she’s going to become the property of Eliza Custis Law. When this becomes made very clear to Ona, she makes a decision, she says in her interview, that she would never be her slave. It shows us that, you know, there are comparisons—there’s a scale with owners. The Washingtons she managed to survive and live with them, but she did not think that going to live with Eliza Custis Law would do anything but offer her a doomed life. And so as the Washingtons were packing up to go on their summer trip back to Mount Vernon, to reset the slave clock in Pennsylvania, she had made a decision to run off. She never tells us the names of the free black men and women who help her, except she tells us that it was the free black community that really helps her plan her escape. And she doesn’t give us their names for good reason—it was a federal crime to help a runaway.

She packs her things quietly while they are packing and she says she doesn’t know where she is going to go, actually, but she knew that if she didn’t leave at that moment, she would never have the chance at freedom.

It’s these things coming together—a change in her ownership, the influence of a free black community in Philadelphia—these things propel Ona to basically steal herself from the Washingtons.

Philadelphia, the corner of Third and Market Street in 1799. The President’s House was on Market, between Fifth and Sixth. Photo via Getty Images.

It’s interesting the way you talk about Eliza Park Custis Law. You can see how somebody could take her—she doesn’t follow the rules and she’s gonna march to the beat of a different drummer— and write an entire book in this lionizing way. But you make it very clear that even as she bucks society’s rules, she’s a temperamental woman and as an enslaved person, you’re not going to want to be stuck dealing with her.

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Right, exactly. There are two ways to look at that. In some ways, because she is a woman who marches to the beat of a different drum, who has her own way of living life, she’s kind of empowered yet she’s also thrown under the bus. Her relatives say that she’s kind of crazy, she’s volatile. She’s trapped by the conventions of 18th century life. As a woman she’s not able to make the same decisions that a man would make without being labelled “crazy” or “sentimental” or “volcanic” or whatever. And her family members do kind of paint her in this picture. Now I will say later on she does live a somewhat interesting, strange life and I do think that she was just a little—she was different.

But the other side of that was Ona was very clear in her words that she was never going to be her slave. She had spent enough time around her—they were about the same age—that she knew that this just could not be a situation that would work for her. And I think it’s important because it tells us that the enslaved made judgements about their ownership. They knew situations that they could work out and situations that were impossible. And Ona saw this as an impossible situation.

Part of the reason why at the end of the book I do an epilogue on Ona’s sister is because I think it’s really important to see how complicated slavery and freedom is at this moment. The reader is left asking, well, if she had stayed—if she had gone off and lived with Eliza—would Ona have gotten her freedom at some point? We don’t know the answer to that. We know that her sister Philadelphia, who is left or forced to carry the burden that Ona refused to carry, because of her relationship with her husband William Costin and his influence, her life went in a different direction. What I think is so beautiful about Philadelphia’s life, about Ona Judge’s life—and then what we see at the very end of the book with Ona’s namesake, Oney, her niece—all three of these women are looking for and finding freedom or a semblance of freedom in different ways. It reminds us that no matter what your situation was as an enslaved person, you were always looking for a way out of human bondage. And that there were multiple ways of doing it, whether you ran off and you were a fugitive, whether you were emancipated by an owner for whatever reason, or purchased by someone and then eventually set free. These were the mechanisms that black people were using in the 18th and 19th centuries to find some measure of freedom in a nation that counted them as three-fifths of a human being and as property.

That’s part of the reason why I brought all of these stories in together at the end, to give us the opportunity to look at the lives of women, not just Ona’s life. Ona’s life is the perfect portal for understanding the beginning of the United States of America through the eyes of the enslaved, and that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to do a hatchet job on George Washington or Martha. I simply wanted to tell the story of the early days of the new nation in a different way and through the eyes of an enslaved woman, and Ona gives us that opportunity because she moves. She goes from Virginia to New York to Pennsylvania to New Hampshire, pretty much covering the south, the Mid Atlantic and New England. So we get to see how different slavery and freedom is in each of these places and look at it through her lens as opposed to the tradition top-down Founding Fathers lens. And there’s interest in that right now, clearly, with Hamilton and other things that are out right now. We’re interested in looking at this history in new ways. And that’s what I tried to do with Never Caught.