Unsung: Ona Judge | New Hampshire Public Radio

Unsung: Ona Judge

Apr 3, 2019

Ona Judge isn’t a household name. Perhaps, in part, because she exemplifies our nation’s shameful past. Judge was Martha Washington’s slave -- her personal handmaid. For most of the 1790s, the President and his family lived in the nation’s capital of Philadelphia. Ona Judge occupied a room over the kitchen. 

That is, until dinnertime on May 21st, 1796, when she stepped outside and never looked back. Two days later, an ad appeared in the Philadelphia Gazette offering a ten dollar reward for her return.  

 

There are thousands of stories that have fallen through the cracks in the Granite State. Remarkable lives that never made it into print, or on to the radio. NHPR's "Unsung" will bring you the stories of New Hampshire women you may never have heard of, and some you have, all told from a modern perspective.  

 

"It would have taken about a five-day journey to get from Philadelphia to Portsmouth, New Hampshire," says historian Erica Dunbar, author of Never Caught: the Story of Ona Judge. 

After learning that Martha Washington planned to give her away to a granddaughter, Judge sought the help of the free black community and fled north. 

Dunbar says there was something about Portsmouth. 

"Clearly it was a place that free blacks felt that Ona could go and perhaps find some anonymity and attempt to blend and a start a new life," explains Dunbar. 

That new life was a difficult one, that began in crippling poverty and depended entirely on the graces of the free black community. She was a fugitive, constantly dodging Washington’s pursuit. Even after his death, when the former President willed that his slaves be emancipated, Ona found no relief. She belonged to Martha, not George. 

"So this grand gesture that we’ve looked to to understand Washington and how his ideas about slavery changed over time and it resulted in his manumission of his enslaved people, no such thing happened for Martha’s men and women who were enslaved," says  Dunbar.  "And so this had no bearing on Ona’s life." 

Ona Judge married. She had children. All the while, she was property because the inherited status of slavery followed the apron strings of women. So Ona Judge passed the disease of slavery through her lineage to her children, making Ona and her children the property of Martha Washington.   

Eventually, Judge’s husband, a sailor, passed away. Without his protection and financial support, she moved out of Portsmouth to live with a fellow free black family in Greenland, New Hampshire. 

Over the next 45 years, she lived in poverty, and in fear of slave catchers. But she also taught herself to read and write. And she shared her story. At 72, she was interviewed for an abolitionist newspaper and she finally revealed her identity.  

"What I think it so incredible about her story is that no matter how difficult it was, even with the sort of trials and tribulations of poverty, she never regrets her decision to leave," explains Dunbar. "That she was made a child of God and she was given relative freedom by her escape and so I think that is such a comment of integrity. That the luxurious possessions meant nothing. She lived as a fugitive for the entirety of her life. But she lived as a free person, and that, to Ona was worth more than pretty dresses, nice shoes, stockings, it mattered not. She was able to live her life."  

Ona Judge died at the age of 74 in 1848, having outlived her children. She never learned that the sister she left behind had been freed and married to a prosperous man who helped free other members of her family. She died in obscurity, she died poor. 

But near the end of her life, her interviewer described her as smiling, with a fire in her eye. Content that she was free in the eyes of God, Ona Judge had defied the most powerful and praised man in America, and her life, from that moment on, was her own.