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Historian tells story of slave who evaded President Washington

Union Leader Correspondent

July 16. 2017 11:26PM
Philadelphia author and historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar signs copies of her book Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge in Peterborough Sunday following her Monadnock Summer Lyceum talk. (Meghan Pierce)

PETERBOROUGH — The story of Ona Judge, the slave who escaped from President George Washington during his presidency, had apparently been lost to history.

Philadelphia historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar has righted that wrong.

Armstrong Dunbar drew an audience of nearly 270 people to the Unitarian Universalist Church Sunday to hear her talk about her new book: “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.” Armstrong Dunbar spoke as part of the Monadnock Summer Lyceum speaker series.

She learned about Judge, who Armstrong Dunbar called “the most understudied fugitive slave in America,” while she was researching another book.

While reading a 1796 Philadelphia newspaper, Armstrong Dunbar, a professor of black American studies and history at the University of Delaware, came across an advertisement for runaway slave. For the time period this was not an unusual advertisement, she said, but what caught her attention was the ad said Judge had run away from Washington during his presidency.

“I stopped sort of short and I read the language, ‘Absconded from the household of the President of the United States.’ First sentence in the advertisement. … 1796, that’s George Washington,” she said. “I paused and I asked myself, ‘Who was this woman and why don’t I know her. What happened to her?’ Here I am becoming a historian in, an expert in earlier African American history, and I don’t know this name. That was problematic to me,” Armstrong Dunbar said.

This was the beginning of a nine-year journey of writing and researching Judge.

“Those nine years were long and difficult, but completely worth it, because I uncovered the life of one of the most incredible woman whose lives I’ve ever encountered in the archives,” she said.

Uncovering her story, Armstrong Dunbar reveals the courage, wit and defiance of Judge. The book also reveals an unsavory side of the Washingtons.

“At the age of 22, she stole herself from the Washingtons, forcing the President to show his slave-catching hand. As a fugitive, Judge would test the President’s will and his reputation,” she said. “The most important man in the new nation, heralded with winning the America Revolution, could not reclaim this enslaved woman. Ona Judge did what few people had done. She beat the president. Judge was never caught.”

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