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The President's Slave Who Found Freedom on New Hampshire's Seacoast

Wikimedia Commons

Ona Judge, a runaway slave who evaded George Washington himself, lived most of her on New Hampshire’s Seacoast after gaining her freedom. Her story isn't well known, but there are many who are working to keep Judge’s history – and the history of the black community in Portsmouth – alive.

While Judge isn’t a household name, in 18th-century Portsmouth, she was infamous. She was a slave of Martha Washington’s – the first lady’s personal handmaid. So when Judge escaped from Philadelphia one May night, it didn’t take long for word to reach her masters. The president’s slave had been spotted in New Hampshire.

Ona Judge gave a couple of interviews, and left some correspondences behind, but there’s a lot of conjecture in her story. Historian Erica Dunbar spent years researching the runaway for her book, Never Caught. She says that Judge’s decision provides insight into her conviction.    

"When she made the decision to flee to New England," explains Dunbar, "she gave up the knowledge that she would ever see her family again. That was a huge thing to let go of as a 22 year-old woman. And what she traded that in for was a life of uncertainty."

New Hampshire was a strategic choice, but it wasn’t Judge’s choice. Once she decided to flee, she put her life in the hands of a well-connected black community. They would have known that Boston and New York City were out of the question for a slave from the most prominent household in the country. But Portsmouth was small and easily accessible – Judge could take a ship straight from Philadelphia. And the port city had abolitionist leanings and a large free black community. There, Judge could be protected.

"We can find in correspondence that she lodged and stayed with free blacks who helped her find employment, who gave her a roof over her head, and allowed her to try and put together a life for herself in Portsmouth," Dunbar says.

That life wasn’t easy. Judge was a fugitive slave. Local newspapers ran daily ads for runaways and bounty hunters were always on the lookout. That, and the President himself was searching for her. She spent most of her self-emancipation looking over her shoulder. She did domestic work for white families in Portsmouth, and eked out a living. It was in stark contrast to the life she would have lived in Martha Washington’s company, according to JerriAnne Boggis, director of the Black Heritage Trail in Portsmouth.

The Washingtons at Mt. Vernon

"She would rather die a free woman than live in the lap of luxury. And that’s the other thing, it’s the president’s house!" Boggis emphasizes, "She didn’t leave Mr. Who-Knows-What in Who-Knows-Where, she left the house of the presidency. The prestige of that."

Driving around the city one cold February morning, JerriAnne imagines the Portsmouth of 200 years ago.

Pulling up to the Strawberry Banke museum, Boggis gestures to the frozen, gravelly ground. Buried a few feet below us is the original dock, where Judge would have disembarked after a five day journey from Philly. From there, she would have been secretly welcomed into Portsmouth’s black community.

"They had slave auctions, actually, right on docks sometimes," Boggis says, "So it’s part of this uncovering of the black history here."

Credit Wikimedia CC
The John Langdon House in Portsmouth

We drive past buildings that were once the homes of free blacks, and on to the massive John Langdon House. Langdon was Governor when Judge lived in Portsmouth – and he’s often credited with warning her of Washington’s hot pursuit. But Boggis has another idea.

"You just can’t imagine that he would run out to find Ona wherever she is to say, “Hey, they’re coming from you.” It’s more likely," Boggis guesses, "that the servants are hearing this and saying, “Well, we’ve got to go and warn Ona that, Hey, he’s in town. Better keep a low profile.”

At the end of the day, standing by the African Burial Ground Memorial, Boggis says that stories like Judge’s are a window into an unseen Portsmouth history.

"Mostly what I do," says Boggis, "is really connect the history to what’s going on now and how this information really changes how we see New Hampshire, how we see New England, how we see America."

Valerie Cunningham - the founder of the Black Heritage Trail and author of Black Portsmouth – explains that their goal is to incorporate the black perspective into the history of Portsmouth.

"It’s not true to say that there is so little documentation of the black past," Cunningham explains, "It’s just been overlooked because it has not been considered relevant, or important. Once you start looking, you find little clues and big clues all around - as they say, hidden in plain sight."

Being hidden in plain sight is a metaphor for Ona Judge’s own life – maintaining her anonymity while trying to lead a normal existence. But that life is getting a different treatment in modern Portsmouth. On March 5th the Temple Israel Social Hall, the Black Heritage Trail will be hosting an Ona Judge living history event and talk with author Erica Dunbar.  

Hannah McCarthy first came to NHPR an intern in 2015, returned as a Fellow the following year and then bounced around as a reporter and producer before landing as co-host of Civics 101. She has reported on everything from the opioid epidemic to State House politics to haunted woods of New Hampshire.
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