It’s appropriate to start off Women’s History Month with the story of a woman who defied the most powerful man in our nation’s history. My mother used Lerone Bennett’s infamous text of black history Before the Mayflower, to introduce to me to those who struggled and triumphed in black history. One example she introduced me to early on was Oney Judge. A slave who liberated herself from her owner, George Washington, Oney (sometimes called Ona) Judge stole herself away — during his presidency. Oney Judge doesn’t get enough attention for her brave stance in highlighting the wrongs of slaver—right from the household of the very first president of the United States.
Born at Mount Vernon, Oney was the daughter of a seamstress and an English indentured servant, so she was very light-skinned, but had—as the advertisement here says, bushy black hair. Philadelphia was the first capital of the United States and Oney served Martha Washington as a personal servant there. She belonged in Martha Washington’s household as a dower slave—property that could not be sold away, but just willed to Martha’s descendants. When one of Martha’s granddaughters was to be married, it was decided that Oney should be passed on to the newlywed couple, who were returning to Virginia.
Oney feared going back to Virginia permanently. She decided to take her freedom while she was in Pennsylvania and ran away, by water, and took up residence in New Hampshire. She did not hide there. She did not change her name, but carried on as a free woman. She married and began to start a family of her own. This was risky. Her children would have been property of the Washingtons as well as herself, but clearly Oney believed in her right to her own life. George Washington tried low key means to get her back, writing her to let her know that if she returned, she would be free after their deaths. The advertisement that was put out about Oney to get her back wasn’t even signed by one of the Washingtons, an interesting way for George Washington to distance himself from the whole affair. When he left the Presidency, an infirm George Washington sent his nephew to try to get her back. The nephew was willing to kidnap her, but she was warned of the plot and ran off.
Even after the deaths of the Washingtons, Martha’s descendants would have been entitled to protection under the law to try to retrieve Oney or her children, but they did not and opted to leave her alone. There’s no record of payment for Oney Judge Staines either. Could it be they admired her defiance to their powerful ancestor?
Her example is admirable indeed. There have been plays written about her and children’s books written about her. A dear friend of mine, Diana Rubino, has written a wonderful new historical fiction about Oney and I hope it will be published soon. More must know about Oney’s bravery and how she dared to stand up to a President of the United States.