When Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, appeared early in 2017, it was on the heels of the controversy surrounding A Birthday Cake for George Washington, a children’s book about George Washington’s chef, Hercules, written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (two women of color), that appeared early in 2016. A social media outcry against the book forced Scholastic to recall it almost as soon as it was released. The complaint was about the decidedly benign, even at times jovial, depiction of slavery the book presented. Not only was Hercules surrounded by happy slaves and indentured servants working for George and Martha Washington but the story makes no mention of the fact that Hercules ran away from the Washingtons in 1796, never to be heard from again. (A fuller account of Hercules’s life is provided in an afterward by Ganeshram that acknowledges the chef’s escape from slavery.) In fairness to the author and the illustrator, it should be the noted the book was not conceived to be about the conditions of slavery but rather about an incredible cook and his daughter. The story is about the trials and tribulations of Hercules, a commanding presence in the book, making a birthday cake for George Washington and, secondarily, about Hercules’s relationship with his daughter Delia who clearly looks up to her father. The book is about cooking, not slavery and slavery ought not to subsume all human experience of the black folk who endured it. (The counter-argument to this, made by many who did not like the book, is that a story about black people in bondage is, perforce, a story of slavery, its conditions and its meaning, against which all other themes of the narrative are played out. Otherwise, if one wants to tell an “innocent” story about a great black chef and his relationship with his children, one has only to choose someone who was or is not enslaved.)
In any case, Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s Never Caught, though not a children’s book, seems nonetheless the counter-narrative to A Birthday Cake for George Washington: slavery is not benign in this gripping historical biography, the Washingtons are not kindly and their bouts of paternalism are not particularly benevolent, and the slaves are consumed with thoughts of their freedom or, let us say, constantly preoccupied with the precariousness of their enslaved condition and status if only because the nation, at the time of Washington’s presidency, is consumed with the debate about whether blacks should be freed, debating if slavery can be in any way justified as a deserved or humane fate for any group of people or if it is both impractical and a grievous sin against God. The slaves’ social antennae vibrated like the string of a plucked harp to this political and philosophical vibration. And why not? Their stake in the outcome was more profound than anyone else’s.
Judge was about 22 years old when she ran away. She lived her remaining 52 years in New Hampshire as free woman/fugitive slave, enduring severe poverty and backbreaking labor as a domestic as many free black women in the North did. Despite these dire hardships, she was adamant when she was interviewed for The Liberator in 1847, one year before she died, that she had no regrets in escaping slavery. “No, I am free, and I have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means.”
Never Caught is the story of Ona (pronounced “Oney”) Judge, Martha Washington’s personal attendant, who ran away from slavery in 1796, “[disappearing] into the free black community of Philadelphia,” (110) the same year that Hercules escaped which also happened the last year of Washington’s presidency. Judge was about 22 years old when she ran away. She lived her remaining 52 years in New Hampshire as free woman/fugitive slave, enduring severe poverty and backbreaking labor as a domestic as many free black women in the North did. Despite these dire hardships, she was adamant when she was interviewed for The Liberator in 1847, one year before she died, that she had no regrets in escaping slavery. “No, I am free, and I have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means.” (187) Her escape enabled her to learn to read and become a devout Christian, which helped sustain her in trying times.
The actual story of Ona Judge could have told in a magazine article rather than as a book, and much of the time the author surmises how Judge felt and reacted to her situation. But as this book is written for a popular audience, not as a full-blown academic treatise (although it is rigorously researched and copiously but unobtrusively footnoted), such assumptions about the interiority of Ona Judge are not only forgivable but could hardly be avoided. The book club audience for this biography would want such speculation. And the speculation is far from irresponsible or ungrounded.
What the readers get is a richly contextual account of slavery in the North during the late 18th century, as well as a narrative of what it was like to be a slave for people as prominent as George and Martha Washington who jointly owned hundreds of slaves. Judge, as a house slave, had certain privileges (as well as intense stress from being at her mistress’s beck and call 24/7), the most important of which was the fact that when Washington assumed the presidency in 1789, she traveled first to New York, and later Philadelphia, to serve Martha. She was thus exposed to life in the North, to the free black community of both cities, and to abolitionists. She also learned, as did probably most or all of Washington’s slaves, that his rotation of slaves back and forth from Mount Vernon in Virginia to Philadelphia during his presidency was to avoid having any of them in the City of Brotherhood Love for longer than six months at a time; otherwise they would be legally entitled to their freedom.
Ona Judge learned, as did probably most or all of Washington’s slaves, that his rotation of slaves back and forth from Mount Vernon in Virginia to Philadelphia during his presidency was to avoid having any of them in the City of Brotherhood Love for longer than six months at a time; otherwise they would be legally entitled to their freedom.
It is hard to say that, from the evidence of the book itself, that the Washingtons’ pursuit of Judge was “relentless.” It had moments when it was persistent and insistent, as Washington had influential intermediaries negotiate with Judge herself for her return on two occasions documented in the book. The deal was that she would return to Mount Vernon to be promised her freedom at a later date, something Washington himself actually was unwilling to do as he felt it was rewarding the fact that she ran away. She was also promised by Washington’s representatives that she would not be physically punished if she willingly returned. She wisely rejected this deal, having no way herself of being able to ensure that it would be enforced. Washington did not want to forcibly return her to Mount Vernon with slave catchers as the abolitionist community in New England was strong and the optics for him as president and national unifier would not have been good. Washington died in 1799 and there does not seem to have been much effort on the part of Martha, who actually owned Judge, not George, to try to force her return, although evidence points to the fact that Martha was quite bitter about Judge’s escape.
It would have been an invaluable service to the reader if Dunbar had included as appendices the two interviews that Judge gave toward the end of her life: the aforementioned one to The Liberator and one to The Granite Freeman in 1845. But this is a fascinating, absorbing account of slavery and freedom in the early days of our nation and is especially accessible for the non-specialist, non-academic reader. I highly recommend it.