U. Of Delaware’s Erica Armstrong Dunbar uncovers the hidden history of the slave who escaped from George Washington’s Philadelphia mansion

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, George Washington, Erica Armstrong Dunbar



Erica Armstrong Dunbar was flipping through Philadelphia newspaper archives from the turn of the 19th century when she uncovered something shocking.

“I came across the advertisement for a slave who had run away from the president’s house. I thought, ‘Who is this woman they’re referring to, Oney Judge?’ And, ‘Wait a minute! The president is advertising for a runaway slave? In Philadelphia? In 1796? Why don’t I know this story?’ ”

That encounter with Oney (who also went by Ona) was more than 20 years ago. Dunbar, of Wyncote, a professor of black studies and history at the University of Delaware, has spent nearly eight years coaxing Judge out of the shadows.

Dunbar tells the story in a new book, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (Feb. 7, Atria, $26). She’ll speak at the Central Library of the Free Library on Feb. 23. 

“I want to introduce the world to Ona Judge so that, hopefully, she will become a household name the same way that we know Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman,” Dunbar said. “Ona Judge predates all of them by decades. She predates even a loosely organized Underground Railroad.” 

Uncovering the story wasn’t easy work. Scholars of African American women’s history are used to scant sources; tracking a fugitive is even more vexing. ...




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