Ona Marie Judge, enslaved in the household of Martha and George Washington, liberated herself by escaping to the Black community of Portsmouth in 1796. There, she gained shelter if not manumission, evading efforts by Washington to persuade or force her to return to his household.
In an interview given to an abolitionist newspaper in 1845, she said, “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.”
In 1796, President Washington instructed Oliver Wolcott, the Secretary of the Treasury, to pursue Judge’s re-capture. Wolcott in turn appealed to Joseph Whipple, Portsmouth’s collector of customs. After interviewing Judge, Whipple wrote to Washington that she had fled based on “a thirst for compleat freedom” and would not return voluntarily without at least a pledge that she would be emancipated upon the death of George and Martha. Whipple also noted the presence of a significant number of self-liberated former slaves living in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, where “the popular opinion here in favor of universal freedom has rendered it difficult to get them back to their masters.”
Judge married Jack Staines, a free Black sailor, in Portsmouth in 1797. After Staines was lost at sea, the widowed Ona Marie Judge Staines lived with a free Black family in Greenland, where she died and was buried in 1848.
To learn more, read Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar (37 Ink, 2017).