On May 21, 1796, an enslaved woman fled the household of U.S. President George Washington for a life of freedom in New Hampshire. Ona Judge escaped after learning that the president’s wife Martha Washington planned to bequeath her to Eliza Custis Law, Martha Washington’s granddaughter. So while the president and his wife were having dinner, she escaped.
In a later interview in 1845 published in the newspaper, The Granite Freeman, Judge 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.”
Judge, born around 1773 to a “dower slave” Betty and a white indentured servant, Andrew Judge, was given to Martha Washington by her father and had been a slave as part of the Washington estate since when she was 10. Judge did not only run errands for Martha Washington but traveled with her as George Washington entered politics.
Judge traveled with the Washington family to states with varying laws regarding slavery. For instance, Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 stated that Black people enslaved by non-residents of the state were legally freed after living in Pennsylvania for six continuous months, a report by EJI said.
The report added that to avoid enforcement of the law and prevent their slaves including Judge from being legally freed, the Washingtons regularly sent Judge and the other slaves in the household out of state for brief periods, to restart the six-month residency requirement.
Soon, Martha Washington’s granddaughter Eliza Custis got married. Martha Washington promised to leave Judge to her as a “gift” in her will. Realizing that she had absolutely no control over her life and that she would remain a slave even after Martha Washington had died, Judge decided to escape.
On the night of May 21, 1796, while the Washingtons were packing to return to Mt. Vernon for the summer, Judge escaped on a ship destined for Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She had made friends with many enslaved people while in Philadelphia and those friends helped her to send her belongings to New Hampshire before she escaped.
After Judge had escaped from Philadelphia, the Washington family tried to recapture her. Two days after her escape, a newspaper ad was placed seeking her return. In the ad, she is described as “a light mulatto girl, much freckled, with very Black eyes and bushy Black hair. She is of middle stature, slender, and delicately formed, about 20 years of age.”
The Washingtons offered a $10 reward for Judge’s return but she evaded capture. A report by NPS said George Washington later got to know about Judge’s whereabouts when Elizabeth Langdon, daughter of Senator John Langdon and a friend of Martha Washington’s granddaughter, saw Judge in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
George Washington asked Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott’s help in capturing Judge. Wolcott also turned to Joseph Whipple, collector of customs in Portsmouth, for help. Whipple was able to contact Judge, who tried to negotiate with him. She told him that she would return if she could be freed upon the deaths of her owners. But the Washington family refused that offer.
The Washington family later tried to seize Judge and a child she had given birth to, but she got to know about it and fled town. She married, had three children, and lived for about 52 years in New Hampshire before her death on February 25, 1848.