Now Available on Video: “Still Reading the Silences: African American Women’s History in the Digital Age”
Erica Armstrong Dunbar holds many titles—scholar, historian, professor—and, as dozens of academic librarians recently learned, spellbinding storyteller.
Speaking at a special breakfast event at the American Library Association Midwinter Conference, Dunbar—Director of the African American History Program at The Library Company of Philadelphia—unraveled the fascinating tale of Ona Judge Staines, a slave who escaped from George Washington’s family in 1796. Philadelphia was an appropriate setting for such a story. The executive mansion at 524-30 Market Street, where Judge lived, served, and from which she ultimately escaped, stands just four blocks from where we met for Dunbar’s talk.
Through Dunbar’s extensive research into Judge’s life, the audience came to understand the enslaved young woman’s unique circumstances and why she so feared a move to Mount Vernon after Washington’s retirement from the presidency. As I listened to Ona’s story, I yearned to see the face of this woman who, despite Washington’s ongoing attempts to find her, evaded capture for the rest of her life.
Other than in the minds of those who hear her story, there is no image of Ona Judge Staines. There are no writings by her hand. There are only a few surviving details of the woman who made such a daring move against one of the most powerful men of the 18th century. Yet, using an array of digital primary sources, including historical newspapers, Dunbar masterfully presents a vivid account of Judge and her journey to freedom. And, as Dunbar dramatically describes, there was one moment in her research—a slight change of a search term—that revealed an entirely new chapter in Judge’s life.