If a slave would free from the home of President George Washington in the late 1700s, then slavery could only be worse for others during that period, according to the thoughts of abolitionists.
As a personal slave to Martha Washington over 200 years ago, Oney Judge had been treated well as compared to other slaves in Philadelphia. According to accounts, she was given the best of clothes, treated to social events and even slept in her own room.
Other accounts state that she could walk the town on her own, running errands or exploring in her free time. But knowing that the above was not worth her freedom, she took the courageous step to escape from George Washington’s house in Philadelphia in 1796 and fled to New Hampshire.
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Her escape shocked the first family as they thought that she was treated well and wouldn’t need to flee.
“Through her own courageous actions, she chose to defy the president of the United States…when she was a young woman, and secure her own freedom,” Jed Levin, chief historian at Independence National Historical Park was quoted by Philly Voice.
Judge was born around 1773 at Mount Vernon, the Washingtons’ Virginia plantation to an indentured servant named Andrew Judge and a slave named Betty. Raised as a slave, Judge began serving as the personal attendant to Martha Washington at the age of 10 at the Virginia mansion.
When Washington was elected president, the family moved to New York and then onto Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Judge lived with them in both areas. In Philadelphia, varying accounts state that the Washingtons treated her well, nevertheless, they were ready to give her out to their granddaughter, Elizabeth Cutsis, as a wedding present.
This angered Judge, who realized that she was just a piece of property to the Washingtons and had no say on what she would be doing in the future. Thus, she decided to flee.
After gathering her belongings and sending them to a member of Philadelphia’s free black community, Judge escaped on May 21, 1796, while the Washingtons went to dinner. She was smuggled on board a ship sailing to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where she taught herself to read and write, and embraced Christianity.
As already mentioned, her escape caught the Washingtons by surprise, and they did all they could to get her back. They placed an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette, a colonial newspaper printed in Philadelphia, offering a $10 reward for her return.
The period before her escape, Pennsylvania was establishing a process to emancipate its slaves. Its 1780 “Gradual Abolition Act” stated that slaves held in Pennsylvania for more than six months could free themselves. But Washington deliberately rotated his slaves while he was president, sending them back to Mount Vernon or New Jersey for a few days so they would remain enslaved. This was a complete violation of the law and had denied Judge her freedom.
Following her sudden disappearance and the search for her, Judge was found in Portsmouth by Elizabeth Langdon, a family friend of the Washingtons, who reported her location. Washington sent his men to get her back, violating the Fugitive Slave Act that required him to provide proof of ownership in front of a court before chasing her.
Joseph Whipple, the Portsmouth collector of customs, met with Judge, who promised to return to the Washingtons under the condition that she would be set free upon their deaths. Washington refused this arrangement when he was told, thinking that Judge was just being ungrateful.
Two years after, Judge had married a sailor called Jack Staines and had a child. But the Washingtons had still not given up on getting her back, so they sent their nephew, Burwell Bassett, who had travelled to Portsmouth on business to get her back – this time, with force.
Bassett first approached Judge with the request to return, but she refused.
He later told the Langdons of plans to kidnap Judge and her child, but the Langdons warned Judge about this, and she escaped with her family to Greenland, New Hampshire where she remained until her death in 1848.
Following the death of George and Martha Washington, Judge’s ownership, along with that of her children, transferred to the Custis estate, forcing Judge to live the rest of her life as a fugitive slave. But this never bothered her.
When once asked by abolitionist newspaper Granite Freeman whether she regretted leaving the Washingtons for an impoverished life in New England, she replied: “No, I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means”.