Ona Judge: Enslaved Fugitive, Black Founder

In the latest of our series for Black History Month 2023, Will Comben, a PhD student in the Department of History, shares the history of Ona Judge – an enslaved Black woman in early America who defied George Washington to live out her life in freedom.

Ona Judge, like many enslaved Black women in early America, sought freedom. Enslaved by George Washington, her story lays bare the paradox at the heart of the early American republic: a project conceived in liberty, but committed to slavery.

Judge grew up in Washington’s Virginia home, Mount Vernon. In 1789, she was taken by Washington to New York, and then to Philadelphia as part of the President’s enslaved household staff. Judge likely yearned for freedom from a young age, but her experience in northern cities brought her dream within sight. Philadelphia, in particular, had a large free Black population and a vibrant abolitionist community. On learning of the Washingtons’ plan to gift her to their grand-daughter, Judge resolved to escape. With the help of abolitionist neighbours, she boarded a ship to New Hampshire, where – despite the Washingtons’ relentless attempts to re-enslave her – she built a life of freedom.

Newspaper notice for Ona Judge in the Philadelphia Gazette.

The Philadelphia Gazette & Universal Daily Advertiser, May 24, 1796, p. 1. Reproduced by the Library of Congress, https://blogs.loc.gov/headlinesandheroes/2019/10/runaway-fugitive-slave-ads-in-newspapers/

Judge’s story, told to abolitionist newspaper The Granite Freeman, and subsequently republished in The Liberator, has endured mainly because she was enslaved by George Washington. But Judge was just one of thousands of Black women who pursued freedom in early America. Traces of their stories can be found in contemporary newspaper advertisements (such as that for Judge shown below). Her ingenuity, careful planning and resilience were typical of female freedom-seekers.

It is incumbent on historians to recover and disseminate stories of Black women, who some might regard as ‘founding mothers’ – people who, more authentically than their enslavers, embodied the principles articulated so poetically in the Declaration of Independence.

What drew you to the story of Ona?

My research on enslaved Black women’s fugitivity has revealed the nature and extent of their agency, but also their historical marginalization. Judge, powerfully, told her story in her own words and she remains an important source for historians.

Will is a SWWDTP-funded PhD student in the Department of History (will.comben@bristol.ac.uk)

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