Q & A: George Washington’s Pursuit of a Runaway Slave Woman

Scholar Erica Armstrong Dunbar shares the story of Ona Judge, the runaway slave who evaded the Washingtons’ efforts to recapture her.

Author Erica Armstrong Dunbar will discuss her book "Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge," at a GW lecture.
February 20, 2018

By Briahnna Brown

Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Charles and Mary Beard History Professor at Rutgers University and director of the African American History program at The Library Company, Philadelphia, has written at length about the early history of black women in America.

Her newest book, “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge,” which was nominated in 2017 for a National Book Award, highlights the story of the runaway slave woman and George Washington’s failed attempts to return her to his Mount Vernon, Va., estate.

Dr. Dunbar will present a lecture on her book at 6 p.m. Feb. 20 in the Marvin Center Continental Ballroom. The lecture is sponsored by GW’s Africana Studies Program and The George Washington Working Group on Slavery and Its Legacies. It is part of GW’s Black Heritage Celebration. A book signing will follow the lecture.

Q: How did you come across information about George Washington and Ona Judge?

A: While I was working on my first book, which is called “A Fragile Freedom” and was about how black women were becoming free in the North, I was looking through 18th century newspapers. I came across a runaway slave advertisement from the president’s house. This was 1796 in Philadelphia when George Washington was president. I said, “Wow that’s really interesting that George Washington has placed an ad—or rather, his people have placed an ad—in the newspaper for a runaway slave who they called “Oney Judge.” (Oney was the diminutive of her name like Timmy or Bobby; her name was Ona.) I use the name Ona, the name that she uses toward the end of her life as a marker of adult dignity. I saw her name and I thought immediately, “wait, who is this woman? What happened to her? Was her escape successful?”

It was something that I came across many years ago—close to 16, 17 years ago—and I just sort of vowed to come back and find out what happened to her. So, I finished the first book and jumped right into trying to figure out as much as I could about this woman.

Q: What was one of the most surprising things you discovered during your research?

A: One of the amazing things that I uncovered or realized was that aside from Ona having tremendous strength and courage, that she was constantly supported once she escaped by free black communities. It was very clear that in both Philadelphia and in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where she escapes to, she is constantly supported, at times hidden, and helped by free blacks—black men and women who understood what the ramifications were for a fugitive, and what would happen if a fugitive was returned. So, I think what that allowed me to do was to understand better how free black men and women were working together as a community across the new nation.

Q: How much did Washington's efforts to recover Ona Judge differ from or were similar to other slave owners?

A: Of course, the similarities were that he’s advertising for Ona for at least a week, and he sends people to try and bring her back to Virginia; these are the things that, of course, other slaveholders were doing when they try to hunt down a fugitive.

What made George Washington different, of course, was that he was president, and he used the power of the presidency to try and reclaim his enslaved woman. He calls upon the secretary of the treasury, and he calls upon the customs officers in New Hampshire and Portsmouth all to try and reclaim this enslaved woman. He actually uses his power as president in a way that was probably not ethical, yet he did it in a way to attempt to avoid spotlight and wanting to circumvent the laws of the nation that he actually signed into existence—the fugitive slave law… But even with using the power of the presidency, Ona Judge was able to remain detached and was never caught.

Q: What parts of your book will your lecture cover? 

A: All of it. The talk will give some biographical background on Ona, it’ll talk about the struggle to escape and then to remain living and passing as a free person. I try not to give everything to the audience because I want them to read the book, but enough so that everyone understands the background, the people with whom she lived and details about the Washingtons.

Politics and Society


George Washington’s Tangled Relationship With Slavery

February 23, 2015
Annual lecture during namesake’s birthday celebration sheds light on his ties to the topic.