Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar pieces together the story of Ona Judge, a slave owned by Martha Washington who escaped into freedom in 1796, during the final year of Washington’s presidency in Philadelphia. Selected as the 2018 summer reading book for the Decorative Arts Trust, the publication creates a narrative through the material objects Judge would have interacted with during the course of her life. Historians usually rely heavily on documentary evidence to produce an accurate and nuanced story. Written documentation does not always exist for all parts of a historic community. Large portions of the narrative of slavery have been overlooked due to a lack of primary resources: widespread illiteracy in the enslaved community; the conflict in early America, including among the Founding Fathers, over the existence of slavery in the new nation; and intentional secrecy among the community of free African-Americans and early abolitionists committed to assisting slaves who chose to flee.
Dunbar, the Charles & Mary Beard Professor of History at Rutgers University, considers Judge’s perspective throughout the book. Born at Mount Vernon in June 1773 to Betty, who produced homespun cloth and made everyday clothes for both the Washingtons and their slaves at Mount Vernon, Judge’s early life was inconsistently documented. As a household slave, her daily life closely mirrored Martha’s, as Ona dressed and undressed her mistress (in clothes spun and sewn by her own mother), accompanied her on social visits around Philadelphia, and helped look after great-grandchildren and visitors. Dunbar bases her narrative on this record, elucidating how the Washington’s genteel life was only possible thanks to the slaves working in the background.
Given gaps in the documentary record, Dunbar necessarily makes educated guesses about elements of Judge’s story, particularly around the details of her escape in March 1796. Even at the end of her life, when she gave two interviews to abolitionist newspapers at her home in New Hampshire, Ona Judge was intentionally vague as to how she affected her escape, merely mentioning that friends in Philadelphia’s free black community assisted her. Dunbar makes a compelling case about how two entries in the Washingtons’ account books may give clues as to how Judge planned her flight. In March 1796, the Washingtons hired Richard Allen, a free black man, to sweep the chimneys of the Executive Mansion. A born entrepreneur, Allen owned a sweep business as well as a cobbler’s shop nearby on Spruce Street. He was one of the founding members of Philadelphia’s Free African Society, a mutual aid organization that also rendered assistance to fugitive slaves. Allen’s visit to the executive mansion occurred shortly after Judge learned that she was to be given as a wedding present to Martha Washington’s granddaughter Eliza. Two months later, on May 10, the Washington’s gave Judge money for a new pair of shoes, which may have provided her a second opportunity to consult Allen while visiting the shoe shop run out of his home. Ten days later, on May 21, Ona slipped out of the Executive Mansion as the Washingtons entertained guests at dinner and disappeared.
This engaging book offers new material on the perspective of slaves in the 18th century that is only just beginning to be publicly discussed at former sites of enslavement such as Mount Vernon. Dunbar’s research illustrates the importance of material culture in developing our knowledge and understanding of history, particularly when written documentation is scant. For more information on the Trust’s Summer Reading program and other membership benefits, please visit the membership page of our website or contact us for more information. (New York: 37Ink/Atria, 2017, $16)