When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left behind his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation’s capital, after a brief stay in New York. In setting up his household he took Tobias Lear, his celebrated secretary, and nine slaves, including Ona Judge, about which little has been written. As he grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change he couldn’t get his arms around: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to circumvent the law. Every six months he sent the slaves back down south just as the clock was about to expire.
Though Ona Judge lived a life of relative comfort, the few pleasantries she was afforded were nothing compared to freedom, a glimpse of which she encountered first-hand in Philadelphia. So, when the opportunity presented itself one clear and pleasant spring day in Philadelphia, Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England. Yet freedom would not come without its costs.
At just twenty-two-years-old, Ona became the subject of an intense manhunt led by George Washington, who used his political and personal contacts to recapture his property.
Impeccably researched, historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar weaves a powerful tale and offers fascinating new scholarship on how one young woman risked it all to gain freedom from the famous founding father.
PRAISE FOR NEVER CAUGHT:
“Never Caught is a fascinating and moving account of a courageous and resourceful woman. Beautifully written and utilizing previously untapped sources, it sheds new light both on the father of our country and on the intersections of slavery and freedom in the flawed republic he helped to found.”
– Eric Foner, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Fiery Trial and Gateway to Freedom
“Totally engrossing and absolutely necessary for understanding the birth of the American Republic, Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s Never Caught is richly human history from the vantage point of the enslaved fifth of the early American population.”
– Nell Irvin Painter, author of Sojourner Truth and The History of White People
“In Never Caught, Dunbar leads us on a fiercely recounted odyssey through the dangerous racial borderlands of the early United States. She has teased out Ona Judge from the shadows of history and given us a determined woman who rejected life as a slave… No one who reads this book will think quite the same way about George and Martha Washington again.”
– Fergus M. Bordewich, author of The First Congress and Bound for Canaan
Erica Armstrong Dunbar is the Blue and Gold Professor of Black Studies and History at the University of Delaware. In 2011, Professor Dunbar was appointed the first director of the Program in African American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia. She has been the recipient of Ford, Mellon, and SSRC fellowships and is an Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer. Her first book, A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City was published by Yale University Press in 2008.
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