George Washington and His Runaway Slave

A new Philadelphia museum, the President's House, dramatically illustrates how the nation's first president tried to thwart his slave's quest for freedom. But Oney Judge prevailed.


In 2007 an archaeological dig revealed the house’s foundation and the remains of a tunnel once used by servants and slaves. Drawing more than 300,000 visitors to the dig, the remains of the kitchen and corridors where slaves toiled were incorporated into the final design.

Led by African-American architect Emanuel Kelly, the firm Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners designed the unfinished, open-air brick house. Inside the doorless frames to the exhibit are images and facts about its famous residents, which included the Washingtons and John and Abigail Adams. A granite wall plaque is dedicated to nine of Washington’s slaves, most of whom are known only by a single name: OneyJudge, Austin, Christopher Sheels, Giles, Hercules (another escapee from the President’s House), Joe Richardson, Moll, Paris and Richmond.

But it is Judge’s story that is the best known. Her 1796 escape garnered her a considerable amount of attention from contemporary newspapers. She was inspired by both the American and Haitian revolutions and aided by black and white abolitionists alike. Her story is now the subject of a children’s book, The Escape of Oney Judge. Last May the museum celebrated “Ona Judge Freedom Day” to commemorate the 215th anniversary of her escape.

As president, George Washington denied enslaved African Americans their legal right to right to freedom by skirting the gradual abolition law in Pennsylvania. This law required owners to free adult slaves after six months of residency in the state; Washington evaded the law by rotating his slaves between his Mount Vernon and Philadelphia homes. As an escaped slave, Judge posed a great threat to Washington’s system, so he tried, first through persuasion and then coercion and trickery, to get her to return to Philadelphia. 

Steadfast in her belief that she deserved to be free, Oney refused to return to the Washington home because she knew that she would eventually be bequeathed to Martha Washington’s cruel granddaughter, Eliza Custis. Listening to Oney’s testimony, culled from an 1845 interview published in the Granite Freeman, is no less inspiring than reading the Declaration of Independence, written one block away. Judge’s story illustrates the competing stories of freedom that birthed the new American republic.

Salamishah Tillet is an assistant professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, author of the forthcoming Peculiar Citizenship: Slavery and the Post-Civil Rights Imagination and co-founder of the nonprofit organization A Long Walk Home, Inc. Follow her on Twitter.

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