The story of Oney Judge

If I hadn’t looked up, I never would have known about her.

This past week, I was in Philadelphia and was waiting to meet someone near the Liberty Bell. I noticed a few posters hanging on a wall outside, and something about one caught my eye.

It was about Oney Judge.

Oney Judge

Her story

She was one of George Washington’s slaves, and she had escaped from his home in Philadelphia while he was President. Here’s the quote that was on the poster.

"Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn't know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty. I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington's house while they were eating dinner.”

I decided to read more. I learned that Pennsylvania became the first state to establish a process to emancipate its slaves. That was in 1780. Part of this “Gradual Abolition Act” was that slaves held in Pennsylvania for more than six months could free themselves.

I learned that Washington purposefully rotated his slaves while he was President in Philadelphia, sending them back to Mount Vernon or to New Jersey for a few days so they would remain enslaved. This violated a 1788 law that had been passed, but Washington continued to do it until 1797 when he returned to Virginia and was no longer President.

Newspaper ads were placed offering a bounty for her kidnapping. “Ten dollars will be paid to any person who will bring her home.”  But there were fears such an abduction would cause a riot among abolitionists.

When she was spotted in New Hampshire, the customs officer sent a message to Washington that she would return if the President would free her upon his death. He declined, saying he would not “reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference [of freedom].” A year later, in 1798, Washington’s nephew met with her and planned to kidnap her himself, but she was alerted and went into hiding.

Read the entire Wikipedia entry if you can. There are much longer accounts too listed in the notes. It brings to life how human beings were treated as pets or objects. The language is chilling.

“At about age 10, Oney was brought to live at the Mansion House at Mount Vernon, likely as a playmate for Martha Washington's granddaughter Nelly Custis. She eventually became the personal attendant or body servant to Martha Washington.”

“Following Judge's 1796 escape, her younger sister, Delphy, became the wedding present to Martha Washington's granddaughter.”

What else have I missed?

Simply by looking up from my phone for a minute, I saw something that changed my perspective.

Until then, I had an almost cartoonish image of George Washington. I would think of him stoically crossing the Delaware in that famous painting. Or admitting to chopping down the apple tree as a boy (“I cannot tell a lie.”).

Of course he must have been more complicated than that, his ethics and values not nearly as lofty or even consistent as I had believed. Even just a few minutes of paying attention brought me closer to the truth, and to an appreciation for all the shades of gray in a world increasingly seeking black and white.

What else have I missed?