November 9, 2018
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A young woman, held by one of America’s founding slaveowners, bolts one day for a life of freedom that keeps her on the lam for the rest of her life, eventually touching upon the life of the most notorious slaveowner of the Civil War.
CK: [00:00:00] This story starts back in the spring of 1796, on a warm evening in Philadelphia. Ona Judge, a young enslaved woman in her 20s, has recently received some terrifying news.
Erica Dunbar: [00:00:13] She found out that she was going to be given away as a wedding gift to her owner's granddaughter, that she would be returned to the South, a place that she had no interest in living. And she made a decision, she made a decision that she would escape.
CK: [00:00:32] That's Erica Dunbar. She wrote the biography of Ona Judge, this enslaved woman, and what became of her in the moments and years after she made this fateful decision to flee her owner. Erica has spent years researching Ona, though there's no way to know what happened on the night Ona decided to escape. Here's how she imagines it.
ED: [00:00:54] She slips out of the door of her home, the home that she had known for close to seven years, and she didn't look back.
CK: [00:01:02] I'm just imagining what that's like. Like if I was to walk out of my house and just leave behind everything that I know.
ED: [00:01:10] Fear had to have been in the forefront of her mind. She must have been terrified. She knew that if she'd been caught that that was a federal offense, that was a violation. And she also knew that if she were caught she more than likely would be punished physically by whipping or perhaps, even worse, she might have been sold off to the sugar cane fields of the Caribbean which basically was a death notice.
CK: [00:01:45] And she also knew that even if she did make it out safely, her owner had connections up and down the eastern seaboard. He could even command armies to try to find her because he had a little bit of pull in this country.
ED: [00:02:00] Her owner was the first president of the United States, George Washington.
[00:02:05] [MUSIC IN]
CK: [00:02:12] After writing some of the fundamental documents professing the American value of liberty, George Washington spent the rest of his life trying to prevent Boehner from attaining just that. I'm Chenjerai Kumanyika and from Gimlet Media, this is Uncivil, where we ransack American History and discover that, as George Washington himself once said, truth will ultimately prevail where pains is taken to bring it to life.
CK: [00:02:54] So Ona was in her early 20s the night she decided to try and escape. Before that she had lived her whole life as the property of the Washington's. Ona had been born on Washington's Mount Vernon estate in Virginia. And by the time she was a teenager she was serving Martha Washington continuously. By day she would comb Martha's hair, help her choose her outfits, mend her clothes, and at night she would sleep in the bedroom next door to Martha. Now for much of Ona's life, George Washington had been a military commander and politician, but around the time Ona was 15, some big news hit their household.
ED: [00:03:33] George Washington is elected president in 1789.
CK: [00:03:39] So the family and many of their slaves have to move and eventually they settle down in the nation's new capital, Philadelphia. And for Ona, Philadelphia was a completely different world.
ED: [00:03:52] This would have been her first encounter with black freedom.
CK: [00:03:58] Philadelphia had the largest free black population in the North at that time. Thousands of people.
ED: [00:04:05] And it was palpable. It was black freedom that could be seen on the streets and the alleys as black men and women walked up and down the streets selling their wares. As black entrepreneurs selling their pepper pot soup or running taverns and boarding homes.
CK: [00:04:27] And there was another key reason that Philly was very different than Virginia. There was a new law that stated if a slave owner moved to Pennsylvania with their slaves they could keep them for six months but if they stayed over that period their enslaved men and women were entitled to liberty, they were entitled to freedom.
CK: [00:04:44] This was the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 and it likely gave Ona a sense of hope. With the families move to Philly, there was now a path for her to become free. But of course this same law was a problem for her master.
ED: [00:05:06] This of course threatened George Washington and threatened his way of life, the life that he had already intended to live in Philadelphia. And that was a life with slave labor.
CK: [00:05:19] So Washington comes up with a plan. If his slaves could be free after six months in Philadelphia he would make sure they were never in Philly for a full six months. After slaves had worked more than five months in his house, Washington would have them taken anywhere outside of the state like just across the river in New Jersey or all the way back to Mt. Vernon. Then when he brought them back to Philadelphia, the six month clock would start over again. In other words he just kept rotating his enslaved house staff to keep them in bondage. Here's Erica.
ED: [00:05:58] So this slave rotation plan that Washington creates and lives by for another six years is not necessarily breaking the law of Pennsylvania but it's breaking the spirit of the law.
CK: [00:06:12] But he didn't want to taint his image as a defender of liberty so he took some additional steps to cover his tracks.
ED: [00:06:20] He writes this in his letter to a secretary and he's very clear. He says 'I want this to be done in a way that will deceive them', meaning the enslaved and the public.
CK: [00:06:32] And it didn't stop there. Just a couple of years after moving to Philly, Washington and a bunch of other politicians created a new law that basically says if slaves did manage to escape, the owners had a right to hire slave catchers to hunt them down wherever they were and bring them back. This is the first Fugitive Slave Act.
CK: [00:06:59] Escaping was now even more dangerous. But Ona felt she still had to try because, remember, she had just learned she might be given away and this would mean being returned to the South and leaving her family. So she had to try to get away.
[00:07:17] [MUSIC ]
[00:07:17] She found a night when the timing was just right, that warm May evening in 1796. The Washingtons were entertaining guests all evening so there it was, a window of several hours where Ona wouldn't be missed. She slipped out the door and walked six blocks to the Delaware River in search of a boat that would take her north. She found it: a cargo vessel called the Nancy. It's not exactly clear how Ona knew the schedule. But it was probably thanks to the community of free blacks passing along information. She went aboard and five days later she stepped off more than 300 miles north in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She had escaped. Back in Philly once the Washingtons realized Ona was gone they panicked. It wasn't just inconvenient. It was also embarrassing. I mean, how would they explain the fact that they had just been outsmarted by a 20 year old slave. So here's what they started to tell people about what had happened. She must have been tricked, seduced away from them by a Frenchman.
[00:08:34] And then they placed an ad in the newspaper begging the nation to help them track her down.
ED: [00:08:41] 'Absconded from the household of the president of the United States. On Saturday afternoon. Oney Judge, a light mulatto girl much freckled with very black eyes...'.
CK: [00:08:51] And all the people reading this ad would have seen that there was a reward.
ED: [00:08:55] 'Ten dollars will be paid to any person white or black if taken in the city or onboard any vessel in the harbour and a further reasonable sum if apprehended and brought home from a greater distance and in proportion to the distance.'.
CK: [00:09:13] And up in Portsmouth it wasn't exactly easy for Ona to blend in.
ED: [00:09:18] She realizes that there are hardly any black people in Portsmouth, there are fewer black people in Portsmouth than there are at Mount Vernon. So the fact that she arrives and she's a new person she would've been recognized, she would have been known as someone sort of new.
CK: [00:09:33] But cautiously Ona presses on. She had come all this way to live her own life and she was determined to find a way. Ona's first challenge was to figure out how to make money.
ED: [00:09:45] The only kind of job that would have been available to someone like owner to any fugitive really would have been domestic work. It would have been working in the homes of white men and women who were willing to pay her to do their laundry, to cook for them, to care for their children.
CK: [00:10:04] But think about how dangerous it would be for her to even go out on a job interview. Her description in an ad with the reward for her return is in the newspaper and there's a law on the books signed by her owner saying he could reclaim her wherever she was but she still pushed forward and one day a couple of months after landing in Portsmouth she's walking down the street when she sees a face.
ED: [00:10:30] And terror must have filled her heart. It was a familiar face, a face that reminded her of the family that was still looking for her.
CK: [00:10:44] It was a young woman named Elizabeth Langdon who was a good friend of the Washington's granddaughters.
ED: [00:10:50] Ona probably had waited on her in the house in Philadelphia.
CK: [00:10:56] And then to owner's horror Elizabeth looks up and recognizes her.
ED: [00:11:03] And it's a moment where Ona has to make a decision. Am I going to run or am I going to walk? If I run, that will cause attention she'd almost certainly stop and ask why is this person running for me.
CK: [00:11:23] So she decides to keep walking by. But it doesn't work. Elizabeth recognizes Ona and shortly after gets word to Washington that Ona is hiding out in Portsmouth. And when George Washington finds out,.
ED: [00:11:38] He is immediately consumed with trying to reclaim Ona.
CK: [00:11:43] He reaches out to the Secretary of the Treasury, effectively turning the federal government into his personal slave catchers.
ED: [00:11:50] So he believes that because he's the president of the United States and he's lost this property while serving the country you're basically working on, working on the job right. He says, well, I have the right to enlist federally appointed men to help me.
CK: [00:12:09] So the Secretary of the Treasury recommends one of the top guys he can think of in New Hampshire, a customs collector named Joseph Whipple. And he was perfect in every way except one. See, Whipple and his family had recently freed all their enslaved people and he was not actually all that comfortable with the issue of human bondage.
ED: [00:12:32] So imagine you're Joseph Whipple, a customs collector for the small town of Portsmouth New Hampshire. And you've just been ordered by the President of the United States to capture his slave, to do work that you've never done before, or perhaps you're not comfortable with doing. You've been mandated by the most powerful man in the nation to be a slave catcher.
CK: [00:13:07] The Washingtons had told Whipple their version of events, that Ona had been tricked into coming up north by a Frenchman, so Whipple figured that instead of using force he'd just try to talk her into coming home.
ED: [00:13:21] And he knew that the best way to find a black person in Portsmouth in the 18th century was to offer employment.
CK: [00:13:32] So he put the word out to the community of free blacks that he was looking for someone to do domestic work and eventually Ons gets wind of it and she thinks.
ED: [00:13:42] This could be it, this could be the job that she needed in order to climb out of poverty and so she reached for it. She goes to Joseph Whipple's office to ask about this work.
CK: [00:14:02] Find out what happens when Ona walks in after this short break.
CK: [00:14:21] Welcome back. This is Uncivil.
CK: [00:14:27] So Ona Judge has just showed up to Joseph Whipple's office for what she thinks is a job interview. She has no idea this guy is actually employed by the President to recapture her. So he leads her inside.
ED: [00:14:41] And he sits down and she notices that he's oddly nice to her, that he starts asking her lots of questions, questions about her background, questions about her family, questions that were necessarily inappropriate but there was one question that struck her as odd. He started to ask her about her love life and asked her if she had a boyfriend, if that boyfriend was a Frenchman so it's at this moment that Ona realizes these questions are off and her body language must have spoken that. And she shuts down and she stops being forthcoming with her answers and she's sort of must have been looking at the door and Whipple realizes from her body language that she knows. And so he levels with her and he tells her, 'listen, the President knows where you are, and he sent me to try and convince you to return you. Let's talk about this'.
CK: [00:16:07] I'm trying to imagine how it might feel to wake up in the morning in the first weeks of freedom only to walk into a room and learn that the President of the United States knows where you are and is bringing the full weight of the federal government to Portsmouth to get you.
[00:16:22] It's at this moment that once again Ona is confronted with a nightmare that must have plagued her for months. Here is the man that's there to take her back into the jaws of slavery. And she sits back. She says she was there, in Portsmouth, not because she was seduced by a Frenchman, not because she was coerced into running away. She says that she was there because of her thirst for complete freedom.
ED: [00:17:02] It's at this moment that Whipple realizes he's at an impasse. That here's a woman who is not interested in returning to Mt. Vernon. And he asks her, 'let me, let me talk to them. Let me see if I can negotiate so that you can return. But you'll be eventually emancipated. Maybe it's when they die. Maybe it's in 10 years. But let's, let me do this. Trust me.'
[00:17:31] At that moment she realizes the priority is to get out of Whipple's office. So she agreed with everything he said. 'Sure. Yes, of course. Talk to them, if they agree to set me free eventually I'll return. Sure. Just tell me when. Nice meeting you.'
CK: [00:18:00] And with that Ona was out the door. Shortly after, Whipple writes Washington and says Ona wasn't abducted, she ran away and the only way he might be able to get Ona to come back is if he promises to emancipate her.
ED: [00:18:18] When this letter is received by George Washington one can imagine his ire just building. He writes back and he says, 'Absolutely not. There is no way that we will agree to set anyone free. She broke the rules. But you can tell her that she will be treated kindly once she returns and that we'll continue treating her family members kindly as well.'
CK: [00:18:53] This is a very intentional move by Washington to remind Ona of the people she left behind.
ED: [00:18:59] The veiled threat, right? The, remember that your family is still here at Mount Vernon. Remember that we can punish them, that we can sell them. Perhaps because we're angry with you.
CK: [00:19:13] Whipple told Ono that a ship was on its way to take her back to the Washingtons and, when the day comes,.
ED: [00:19:21] He waits for her by the docks. Probably checking his timepiece wondering where she is and at some moment-- we don't know exactly when-- he realizes that he's been played.
CK: [00:19:38] Now, back in Philadelphia, George Washington's presidency is wrapping up. It's the fall of 1796 and he's writing what will become his famous farewell address, expressing his hope that the country always protect the virtue of liberty and be, quote, 'guided by an exalted justice and benevolence'. Back up in Portsmouth, Ona has no clue if the newly retired president will himself be guided by benevolence. If he'll give up his search or if he'll shortly come after her again. But she goes back to trying to piece together a life for herself.
ED: [00:20:20] The first thing that she does is to find love. And she finds a ma,n a free black man named John Staines. He typically went by Jack, Ona called him Jack.
CK: [00:20:34] Jack was a sailor and in time they had a baby daughter, Eliza. Raising a child on her own terms, this was freedom. But as Ona held Eliza in her arms, she also felt a new fear because technically according to the law,.
ED: [00:20:53] Her daughter followed the path of her mother. She was enslaved. She was a fugitive. Slavery followed the apron strings of its women and so although she was born in Portsmouth to a free black father it didn't matter.
CK: [00:21:10] Ona's baby belonged to the Washingtons. The months go by. The baby Eliza grows into a toddler and one day when Ona's husband Jack is out at sea there's a knock at the door.
ED: [00:21:26] She opens the door and she sees a face that probably drained the blood from hers. It was the nephew of the Washingtons, Burwell Bassett, who'd been sent by George and Martha Washington. She probably wish she hadn't opened the door. But she had and he, in a sort of Interesting manner, spoke kindly to her, suggested once again that she needed to return. He had been sent by his family, that they missed her that they wanted her and she needed to, to come.
CK: [00:22:11] And what did she do?
ED: [00:22:12] She looked him in his face and she said no, I won't. Burwell Bassett realizes that he's going to need to be much more forceful in reclaiming Ona. She's not coming voluntarily. This is probably going to require strong men with ropes. And they were going to need to take her violently.
CK: [00:22:42] So he leaves and a couple days later,
ED: [00:22:46] Bassett returns to Ona's home, knocks on the door, there's no answer. Perhaps he kicks the door in, we don't know. We know that he gains entrance and what he finds is an empty home. No Ons, no baby Eliza, it was an empty house.
CK: [00:23:10] Bassett had gotten played just like Whipple. Ona had fled with a child to a small woodsy town about eight miles outside of Portsmouth where some people in the free black community had helped her secure a temporary lodging.
ED: [00:23:23] And once again she was saved by the goodwill and the big hearts of free black men and women.
CK: [00:23:35] And Bassett, he must have realized he had a gloomy task ahead of him.
ED: [00:23:40] He would have to tell George and Martha Washington that he could not accomplish the one thing they asked him to do, to return a young woman. What man couldn't do that in the 18th century?
CK: [00:24:04] Ona stays in hiding for several more years, finding new work, tending to her family, and when she's in her late 20s Ona finally gets what seems like a little stroke of good luck.
ED: [00:24:16] In December of 1799, George Washington died.
CK: [00:24:25] And when they opened his will it stated that all his slaves would be free but, wait for it, only when Martha died.
ED: [00:24:36] This meant that over a hundred and twenty people were guaranteed their freedom once Martha Washington died.
CK: [00:24:50] I mean wasn't George Washington supposed to be like a strategist or something like that.
ED: [00:24:55] Well, in his mind this was strategic because what it did was allow for his wife to benefit from the slave labor that he brought to the marriage. It would continue her way of life. However there were some suspicious fires at Mount Vernon. These things that made her realize, wait a minute. The only thing standing between these folks becoming free is me breathing so Martha amends George Washington's will to free all of his slaves.
[00:25:37] But unfortunately for Ona, she was not one of those slaves. The grandchildren would inherit the claim to Ona's body. And because of laws that George Washington helped to put in place, Ona's bondage would just keep getting passed down for the rest of her life. In other words, the liberty that the Founding Fathers like George Washington wrote into law for themselves was built on the unending enslavement of people like Ona.
[00:26:20] So Ona keeps living her life in New Hampshire, never sure that another of Washington's mercenaries won't show up. She and Jack have a couple more kids but sadly Jack dies young,
ED: [00:26:32] Leaving her a widow with three small children, Eliza, William, and Nancy, all toddlers.
CK: [00:26:44] She does her best to make money with all sorts of odd jobs.
ED: [00:26:48] There's a moment in which Ona is forced to recognize her inability to take care of her family and that's when she has to indenture her daughters to work for a neighboring farmer and it must have just been heartbreaking. Her young daughters are indentured. Her son William, he leaves. He goes off to to make a living the way his father had at sea. She doesn't see him ever again and she lives with her daughters. Eventually they work off their increments. They come back to her attempting to kind of find a way to live with crippling poverty.
CK: [00:27:34] And unfortunately she wasn't able to save them.
ED: [00:27:38] She would bury both of her children in the 1830s.
[00:27:50] And here's the thing. There was always that claim on Ona's life. And if you follow the line of inheritance to figure out who technically owned Ona at the end of her life you'd find that the claim had passed from the Washington's grandson to his daughter who ends up marrying
ED: [00:28:07] General Robert E. Lee.
CK: [00:28:11] Mmhmm, that Robert E. Lee. But Ona was never captured. And at the end of her life when she was 70-some years old, Ona still had one thing that no one could take away from her. Her secret story and everything it revealed about the first U.S. president and the country. And so, she told it.
ED: [00:28:37] She agrees to give two interviews to abolitionist newspapers. She really has nothing to lose at this moment. All of her children are gone. She's an elderly woman. In terms of her value as an enslaved person, she would not have been something that the Washington heirs would have been interested in reclaiming. It's really the first moment that she has the ability, the freedom to tell her story without great repercussions. And it's here she tells her story to a reading public. She says, 'Yes, I was the slave of the Washingtons, and yes I ran away because I wanted to be free. And, no, I don't regret a moment of it.' She says, 'I was made a child of God by this.'
CK: [00:30:21] Uncivil is executive produced by Jack Hitt were produced by Wallace Mack and Bobby Lord editing by Lulu Miller. Our show was mixed by Bobby Lord the music for Uncivil was composed by Bobby Lord and Matthew Boll in collaboration with Ann Caldwell and the Magnolia Singers. Additional Music this episode by Hayley Shaw and Three Legged Torso. This episode was fact checked by Michelle Harris our secret weapon is Christopher Peak special thanks to Emanuele Berry, Eric Mennel, and Caitlin Kenney. Erica Dunbar's book all about Ona Judge is called Never Caught. It's a great read and you should get it wherever you get your books. Uncivil is a production of Gimlet Media. Our website is uncivil.show. We're on Twitter and Facebook and uncivil show. And don't forget to join our Facebook group, Uncivil Podcast. I'm Chenjerai Kumanyika.
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