Author Erica Armstrong Dunbar (Photo by Whitney Thomas)
One day in the spring of 1796, as George Washington and his wife, Martha, enjoyed dinner in Philadelphia (the temporary seat of the nation’s capital), a young enslaved woman in their household made a desperate break for freedom. The Washingtons, outraged at Ona Judge’s escape, hunted her until the end of their lives. “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge,” by Erica Armstrong Dunbar (37Ink/Atria Books, $25), is the first full-length account of Judge’s life. Dunbar, a professor of black American studies and history at the University of Delaware, is one of six writers on the author panel of the Junior League of Richmond’s Book and Author Event, held Thursday, May 4.
This year, the Junior League of Richmond offers a Q&A with the authors at its luncheon (12:30 p.m. at the Tuckahoe Women’s Club, 4215 Dover Road), plus a meet and greet with them after its annual dinner, 7 p.m. at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. Tickets, starting at $35, are available at eventbrite.com.
Richmond magazine: You reveal in your book that the father of our country skirted Philadelphia’s anti-slavery laws during his six-year residency there, cycling his slaves in and out of Mount Vernon every six months in order to avoid the city’s time limit on slaveholding. In addition, he pursued Judge relentlessly after her escape. Clearly the Washingtons’ personal lives did not reflect the ideals for which they are remembered. Was the Washington we thought we knew a myth?
Erica Armstrong Dunbar: I think what we see through the lens on Ona Judge’s life is how complicated and morally bankrupt the institution of human bondage was. ... By looking at someone like George or Martha Washington, we are able to see people living in the 18th century who profited off slave labor and who also later in their lives went in different directions with their feelings about slavery. George Washington did make the decision in his will to emancipate his slaves on the death of his wife. George and Martha Washington never had biological children together and when he created his will he did not have biological children who were expecting anything and it was in many ways easier to make the decision to emancipate the enslaved people who were his property. Martha emancipated no one. Examining George and Martha Washington shows us how complex slavery was and that even within a marriage people could have different ideas about slavery.
RM: Some reviewers have said that this book will change the way we study the history of slavery in the U.S. Thoughts?
Dunbar: It was a goal of mine to help a general audience rethink some issues of slavery. There is a myth that it was better to be a slave in the house and that your life was somehow easier than those who lived and worked outside in the fields. I think I showed through the experiences of Ona that her life was anything but easy. That was one of my goals in terms of a contribution to the study of American slavery. Another was to rethink slavery in the north. There was this idea that in the north slavery didn’t exist or was done by the time Washington arrived … When [Ona] arrived in New York, slavery was more commonplace than when she went to Philadelphia. The north was not monolithic.
RM: Is it accurate to say that Ona Judge paved the road for other slaves to escape, well before the establishment of the Underground Railroad?
Dunbar: Ona Judge managed to do what Frederick Douglass did, but decades before. She was a pioneer. She was not the first enslaved person to run away but one of the first that belonged to a president and I think her contribution is noteworthy because it appears in print. Interviews in abolitionist newspapers toward the end of her life cement her legacy. Her story is poignant and compelling and perhaps more so because she did belong to George and Martha Washington.
RM: We see ourselves as a nation of freedom yet we are a nation built on slavery. Today we are still struggling with racial injustice. How important is it to uncover the truth in our nation’s history?
Dunbar: There is absolutely no way we will ever come to a moment of reconciliation and real progress unless we recognize and accept the past for what it was. And I do think we are slowly moving in that direction. For me, the fact that this book was published at a moment when Mount Vernon has an exhibit about George Washington and slavery signals that there is a change needed in the telling of our history. If we want to understand our present and help shape the future in a progressive way we must engage the past, and that means the ugliness of slavery. Until we do, I am not sure we will get to the place that many of us wish us to be.