Oney “Ona” Judge, also known as Oney Judge Staines, gained fame as an escaped slave who avoided the search efforts of President George Washington. Much of Judge’s story became known shortly before her death via a pair of interviews and was a valuable resource to abolitionists.
Born in 1773 at Virginia’s Mount Vernon estate to a Black slave mother and white indentured servant father, Judge was born into a life of servitude. Like many of her enslaved counterparts, Judge was not taught to read or write but excelled at domestic affairs. She became a favorite of Mary Washington, and lived in relative comfort at the President’s Home in Philadelphia. However, as criticism of slavery became more prominent, President Washington looked to distance himself from the practice.
The Washingtons found a loophole around Pennsylvania law at the time by moving Judge every six months between New York and Pennsylvania so that she would never be considered a legal resident, thus allowing her to go free. During her time in Philadelphia, Judge befriended a number of free Blacks who gave her the courage to find her freedom.
After learning that she was going to be given away as a gift to Washington’s granddaughter, as was custom at the time, Judge hatched an escape plans. During a family dinner and right before a trip that allowed her the excuse to do a lot of packing, she slipped out and made her way to New Hampshire on a ship. Mary Washington was said to be furious about the escape, and mounted a search to capture Judge. In New Hampshire, Judge married free Black man John Staines and had three children.
Judge famously rebuffed the Washingtons offer to come back to the Mount Vernon estate unpunished because they would not grant her freedom after their deaths. Judge passed in 1848 at the age of 75, as a fugitive, but said she never regretted her decision to become free.
Judge’s life is examined in the book, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, by University of Delaware Black Studies and History Professor Erica Armstrong Dunbar.