Ona Judge: The Story of a Fugitive Slave (Part One)

Ona Judge lived roughly fifty years as a fugitive slave, one of the many that made Southerners so irate and spurred their demands for the new Fugitive Slave Act. Her life also helps illustrate how much security, or how little, a fugitive that remained in America might hope for. I regret to begin writing about a slave by talking about the slave’s owners, but I think that part of the story adds meaningful context.

Daniel Parke Custis owned 285 slaves and almost 18,000 acres of land in Virginia. He married a woman decades his junior, the eighteen year old Martha Dandridge and they lived together at  White House Plantation. In 1757, after seven years of marriage, Custis died without leaving a will. Under Virginia law, Martha received one-third of the estate for her own use and income during her lifetime. The other two-thirds formed a trust for her surviving children with Custis, only one of whom reached majority.

Martha Washington

Martha Washington

The widow Custis married a second time, to a wealthy planter named George Washington. On marriage, Washington became manager of the Custis estate and Martha’s dower share, including around eighty-five slaves. One of those slaves, Betty, had a child with one of Washington’s white indentured servants around 1773. We don’t know the exact year. That child, Ona (or sometimes Oney), inherited her mother’s enslavement per the Virginia slave code. She worked in the mansion and came with the Washingtons to New York with seven other slaves and then to Philadelphia with nine others.

Pennsylvania’s gradual emancipation law applied to Philadelphia. It exempted congressmen but not members of the executive or judiciary. Washington privately insisted the law did not apply to him, as he came to Pennsylvania only because the government located itself there. Instead, as a non-resident, Virginia’s law should apply to him. Non-residents could keep slaves in Pennsylvania for up to six months without losing them. Like many other slaveholders in the government, Washington circumvented the law by rotating slaves in and out of Pennsylvania regularly and also took pains to ensure he never stayed for more than six months and so never potentially took up Pennsylvania residency. The first six month deadline fell while Washington traveled the South, but Martha took Ona and one other slave to Trenton, New Jersey for two days to evade the law’s reach. She dispatched the rest of the household slaves back to Virginia.

Judge made friends among Philadelphia’s free blacks and hoped to be free herself. But she knew that the end of Washington’s second term would mean returning to Virginia from which she might never escape. Ona also feared Martha would give her to her granddaughter as a wedding present. Thus, in her own words:

“Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn’t know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty. I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington’s house while they were eating dinner.”

Judge’s friends hid her and then arranged for her passage on a ship to New Hampshire, taking her far from Washington’s reach. His agent put an advertisement seeking her into the Phliadelphia papers, but due to Philadelphia’s large antislavery population, mostly Quakers, Washington tread carefully.

Ona freed herself in the sense that she no longer faced the daily reality of life as a slave, but life as a fugitive had its own perils.

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