Never Caught was described by Columbia University Professor Eric Foner as “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.”
“Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge”—a new book about the risks one young woman took for freedom—was published yesterday. Author Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Distinguished Blue and Gold Professor of Black Studies and History at the University of Delaware, explores not only the 22-year-old’s courageous escape from the Philadelphia home of the first First Family but also the subsequent efforts George Washington took over many years to have her recaptured.
Writing about Dunbar’s new work, Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of “The Hemingses of Monticello,” says, “There is no way to really know the Washingtons without knowing this story.” In a discussion at a recent Readex-hosted American Library Association event, Prof. Dunbar shared the story of Ona Judge:
As explained above, Prof. Dunbar’s sources include historical newspaper coverage spanning Judge’s escape “from the household of the President of the United States,” as described in a 1796 runaway slave advertisement, to articles such as this 1845 item reprinted in the National Anti-Slavery Standard:
Readex has partnered with the Library Company of Philadelphia to create Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922, an online version of one of the world’s preeminent collections for African American studies. While in Philadelphia, members of the Readex team had the opportunity to visit the Library Company for a firsthand look at original documents found in this newly digitized collection. For a quick overview of Afro-Americana Imprints, see the video below:
Krystal Appiah, the Library Company’s Curator of African American History, was one of our hosts during this visit. As part of her daily work, she helps a diverse group of researchers find relevant materials in African American history, literature and related fields. With her deep understanding of the Afro-Americana Collection—an accumulation that began with Benjamin Franklin and steadily increased throughout the Library Company’s history—Appiah expertly navigates the stacks to locate just the right item.
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.
In 2013, people across the United States will celebrate the sesquicentennial of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. As the country approached a third year of bloody civil war, President Abraham Lincoln issued what has become the most symbolic of mandates. Although limited in many ways, the Proclamation stands as a centerpiece in the long struggle to end racial slavery in America, an institution that spanned more than two centuries and brought death and despair to millions of people of African descent.