Several months before he passed away, George Washington said that after his death, all his slaves should be freed. The first president of the United States had kept fellow humans as slaves for 56 years.
Historians credited Washington for finally seeing the light. Today the name George Washington is associated with honesty, courage, and freedom. The runaway slave that Washington relentlessly hounded and hunted would beg to differ.
Ona Maria Judge was born a slave in 1773. From birth, Ona was the property of Martha Washington.
At the age of nine Ona Judge was moved to Washington’s house in Virginia. She became Martha’s personal maid. When George Washington became President, Ona was taken to New York and then to Philadelphia.
In the two northern cities, Ona was exposed to a free black community for the first time. She saw how different life could be.
After Ona learned that she was to be a wedding gift to Martha’s granddaughter, she escaped. Black friends first helped hide her in Philadelphia. She then caught a ship to New Hampshire in 1796.
Ona’s treatment by the Washingtons was better than that of many slaves. Yet she was still motivated by a basic human instinct: the desire to be free. She wanted to Iive and work where she pleased. She wanted the same for her children.
The Washingtons failed to understand that simple desire and gave chase. They described Ona as ungrateful for all they had given her. Breaking his own 1793 fugitive slave law, Washington sent a man to recapture Ona.
Ona agreed to return if they would agree to free her after Martha’s death. Washington refused her offer. He said it would “reward unfaithfulness.”
Four months before his death, Washington again tried to capture Ona. She was pregnant, and he believed her unborn child was also his property. She caught wind of his plans and escaped again.
When George Washington died and freed all the slaves in his will, Ona was not one of them. She remained the legal property of Martha Washington.
Yet Ona lived the rest of her life as a free woman. She married, had three children, and outlived her owners by nearly a half-century. Her life was tough though, for she faced the extreme poverty endured by many former slaves.
A newspaper journalist interviewed Ona in 1826. The writer asked her if she had any regrets about running away from the Washingtons since her life as a free woman had been so hard. She simply said, “No, I am free, and have, I trust been made a child of God…”
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