*PRESIDENT’S DAY EDITION*
On May 24, 1796, the Pennsylvania Gazette published the ad here requesting the capture of Oney Judge, First Lady Martha Washington’s personal, runaway slave.
Ona “Oney” Judge was born into slavery at Mount Vernon, VA around 1773, and was groomed as Martha Washington’s body attendant. She was so treasured by the First Family that she was one of 8 slaves who moved to the nation’s new capitol of Philadelphia with them in 1790. Her status as an upper echelon household slave afforded Oney luxuries that others didn’t have — she could accompany her mistress in town, or go alone to enjoy the local attractions, she wore nice clothes, and she even had a room of her own! What more could a slave want?
The Washingtons soon found out. In 1796, Martha’s granddaughter back home was married, and she promised Oney to the newlyweds as a gift. Oney knew that if she went back south to Virginia, the home of American slavery, she’d never return. So when she packed her bags to leave the Washingtons, she decided that those bags were packed for freedom.
And for years, she ran. Oney escaped that day, but she was never actually free. The Washingtons were shocked & infuriated by her disloyalty, and doggedly attempted to recover her. Ads like the one shown here were placed in newspapers, and on at least three separate occasions over the years, the President’s friends & associates attempted to facilitate Oney’s return by negotiation or by force.
Oney settled in New Hampshire, married a free man & had children, but there was no statute of limitations on slavery. If she had ever been captured, she would have been immediately returned to the Washingtons, and her children would become slaves too — the Washingtons property rights over their mother took precedent over their free father’s parental rights. So for the next several decades, she hid until she was in her 70s, hoping to be forgotten or too old to be worth the trouble.
When she finally granted her first newspaper interview in 1845, the reporter asked if she regretted escaping into isolation & poverty, in contrast to the affluence she could have have had with the Washingtons. Her response was moving: "No, I am free.”