Read the Revolution
Never CaughtJanuary 23, 2019
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When Ona Judge decided to run away from her enslavement at the President’s House in Philadelphia in 1796, she risked her life in search of freedom. Her journey to escape from the ownership of George and Martha Washington is an inspirational story of survival and determination in the face of slavery. Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar has made Judge’s story more widely known through her 2017 publication Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge. To make Judge's story even more accessible, Armstrong Dunbar teamed up with Kathleen Van Cleve to adapt her telling of Judge’s journey to freedom into a young readers edition.
Released in January 2019, the young readers edition of Never Caught is geared toward middle school-aged students and teachers. It features large print, short chapters, and helpful in-text definitions. A goal of this edition is to ensure that young readers grasp the harsh reality and injustice of American slavery as they grow up to become decision makers. Armstrong Dunbar’s introductory note makes that clear.
The younger readers edition does not lose the emotional story telling that made the 2017 version of Never Caught so popular. Armstrong Dunbar and Van Cleve transport readers into predicaments and moments of decision that Ona Judge faced as a young person. They provide brief historical context for each episode and try to give the reader a glimpse into Judge's mindset.
This excerpt, from Chapter 23 of the young readers edition, places readers into a tense moment in Ona Judge Staines’s (her married name) life as a free person. Judge Staines's freedom was continually at risk because the Washingtons used agents to find her and try to recover their "property." In 1799, the Washingtons came very close to success as Ona Judge Staines came face-to-face with one of their agents at her home in New Hampshire.
By 1799 Ona and Jack Staines and their baby, Eliza, appear to have been living as happily as possible in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Always poor and always working, they managed to find a way to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.
At the same time, George and Martha Washington had still not gotten over the fact that they had been unable to capture Ona Judge. Now the retired gentleman farmer at Mount Vernon that he had always wanted to be, George Washington-perhaps with a nudge from Martha-rekindled his mission of getting Ona to return to Mount Vernon, where he was certain she belonged.
The person George chose to carry out this job was Martha’s nephew Burwell Bassett Jr. Burwell was thirty-five years old, nine years older than Ona. He had known Ona as a child, from his visits to Mount Vernon. Now he was a member of the Virginia Senate. George thought this would give Burwell an excuse to travel to New Hampshire and tell people he was there "for business."
George instructed Burwell to meet with John Langdon after arriving in New Hampshire. It had not occurred to George that John would no longer be his ally in his quest to retake Ona. But times had continued to change, and George had still not fully taken into account how much attitudes toward slavery were shifting, particularly with politicians such as John. For example, John had officially switched political parties, moving from the Federalists (George Washington's party) to the Democratic-Republicans (the political party headed, at the time, by Thomas Jefferson). George ignored this. It seemed that he was the only person unable to get over the past: Ona had been gone for almost three years, yet he was determined to get her back. He was certain John Langdon would support him in this venture, and he insisted on continuing his absurd claim that Ona had been "enticed away by a Frenchman." In the same stubborn spirit, he also maintained his position that he would not allow Ona to negotiate for her own freedom, writing that it would set a "dangerous precedent."
Burwell Bassett set out for New Hampshire and did indeed stay with the Langdons during his time in Portsmouth. Burwell discovered that not only had John Langdon switched political parties, but he had publicly expressed reservations about including slavery in the US Constitution. All the Langdon family slaves had been freed and then rehired as paid laborers. Despite all this, Burwell could not believe that John Langdon would not help him and his uncle George in their effort to capture Ona. After all, Burwell reasoned, John did not refer to himself as a leader in the early antislavery movement. When Burwell arrived in Portsmouth, he must have assumed it would be a relatively easy day's work to grab Ona, put her on a ship, and sail back to Virginia. After all, he knew exactly. where she was.
Burwell went to Ona's house shortly after his arrival. We can imagine this moment. Ona, now about twenty-six, hears a knock on the door. Baby Eliza, now about one year old, would be close by her toddling around on unsteady legs. Jack Staines was away at sea. Ona was used to Jack's travel schedule and was just happy contemplating the day when he was scheduled to return. The knock on the door could have been anyone: a free black friend, a white friend, someone who wanted Ona to watch their child while they left to do an errand.
So Ona opens the door. And then, instead of a friend, she sees her nightmares come to life. Standing in front of her is a man she recognizes from her youth. George and Martha have not given up. They are still after her.
Fear clenches her heart. Instinctively she picks up Eliza and holds her close as she faces Burwell Bassett Jr. for the first time in years. How she wishes that she hadn't answered the door.
Burwell follows the script that George suggested to him before he left Mount Vernon. If Ona voluntarily returns to Virginia, she will not face any punishment for her misdeeds. Burwell does his best not to speak to her harshly, but it would be better, and more truthful, if he did, because Burwell has every intention of treating Ona and her daughter roughly if he has to.
"Will you come with me?" he may have said, as politely as he could.
Ona stares at him. her little girl's warm body fueling her courage. After what probably seems like a very long time, Ona answers Burwell very simply.
As a native southerner, Burwell would have been offended to his core that he had to negotiate with this woman, this slave. Yet it becomes clear, quickly, that Ona is not going to budge.
Burwell swallows his anger and sweetens the deal, promising that the Washingtons "would set her free when she arrived at Mount Vernon." Ona knows this is a lie, but she stands there and listens. Perhaps Burwell continues with promises for an easy, nondramatic return to the estate-maybe even reminding Ona of her family still living at Mount Vernon, or how Martha is still just plain devastated at Ona's loss, because there is no one who is as wonderful as her best slave. Ona is missed! Ona is needed! Maybe Burwell looks around at that moment and delivers his strongest argument. If she goes with him, Ona and Eliza will not have to live in poverty in New Hampshire.
As Burwell prattles on, Ona finds her resolve. When he finally finishes speaking, she looks him straight in the eyes. Her response is final, and fierce.
"I am free now and choose to remain so."
Read the Revolution is published biweekly by the Museum of the American Revolution to inspire learning about the history of the American Revolution and its ongoing relevance