I Am Free Zoom in

Oney Judge was born around 1773 on Mount Vernon, the Virginia plantation of the most celebrated hero of the American Revolution: George Washington. She was the daughter of Betty, a black seamstress (enslaved), and Andrew Judge, a white tailor (an indentured servant). We have no images of the girl, but she was described as having a light complexion.

Oney spent her early years in the slave quarters on the plantation until age ten, when she was moved into the main house to served as a playmate to one of the granddaughters of Washington’s wife Martha. She learned to do excellent needlework, but little else, being given no education or religious instruction, according to an 1846 interview of Judge that first appeared in the newspaper The Granite Freedom.

When in 1789 George Washington became America’s first president he was obliged to take up residence in Philadelphia, then the capital of the new nation. With him went now First Lady Martha, their grandchildren, and various household staff, including 16-year-old Oney Judge. In Philadelphia, Judge was no longer a playmate but rather the euphemistic title of “servant” to the first lady.

For someone in bondage, Judge had a relatively easy life as the personal servant to the First Lady. She had her own bedroom. Her duties were light, including accompanying Martha Washington on shopping trips and social visits. Household ledgers show that Judge received gowns from the first lady and attended the circus when it was in town. As well, she was allowed a fair amount of free time.

Judge spent some of that time mingling among Philadelphia’s free black population, which by 1790 was some 2,000. It was a community that included such trailblazers as James Forten, an abolitionist who made his fortune with his sailmaking business, and the Reverends Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, who would found the first black churches in Philadelphia, the centers for early abolitionism. Judge would have certainly have heard about their heroic efforts to save fellow Philadelphians from the yellow fever epidemic that raged through the city in the summer of 1793, even as she waited it out with the rest of the First Family in nearby Germantown.

Being a slaveholder in a city where less than two decades earlier, Washington and other founding fathers had declared their commitment to stamping out the tyranny of the British crown and gaining their own freedom, was a problem for the president. So he began to replace the individual he had enslaved with white indentured servants.

But there was still a matter of those that the first lady brought with her to Mt. Vernon when she married Washington. If he emancipated them, he’d have to compensate his wife for the value of the enslaved . To complicate matters, Pennsylvania had passed a law abolishing slavery in 1780, and by 1791, out-of-state slaves could claim freedom after a six-month residency. Washington and Martha got around this law by sending their slaves back to Mount Vernon—or in the case of Judge, to nearby New Jersey for a couple of days—to break their Pennsylvania residency.

In March 1796 when Martha Washington’s granddaughter and her new husband came to visit, Judge was told that her residency would once again change. When the couple returned to Mount Vernon, Judge would be going with them—as a wedding gift .

All the circuses, clothes, and free time in no way made up for being enslaved. Judge made up her mind that the next move she made would be on her own terms. Turning to sympathetic friends for help, she made a plan. “Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go,” she recalled years later. On May 21, 1796, while the Washingtons were eating dinner, Oney Judge slipped out of the presidential mansion and into what would later be called the Underground Railroad.

When Judge was discovered missing, the Washingtons placed an ad in The Pennsylvania Gazette. “Absconded from the household of the President of the United States,” it began and went on to offer a ten-dollar reward for Judges capture and return. But there was one big problem: “It is not easy to conjecture wither she has gone,” the ad read.

Judge had gone to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. While there, she was spotted by a family friend of the Washingtons. When the President found out, he ordered a Portsmouth official named Whipple to send Judge back.

The president had the law on his side. The 1793 Fugitive Slave Law required free states to help slave hunters recapture runaways. However, Whipple knew that if he attempted to send Judge south, there would be a riot at the docks to try to save her—similar scenarios had been played out elsewhere. Whipple did question a terrified Judge, who said she would only go back on one condition—that her freedom be guaranteed upon their deaths.

President Washington refused, furious that his “property” could be so disloyal and ungrateful—and have the temerity to try to make a deal for her freedom. Judge remained in New Hampshire.

By all accounts, the rest of Judge’s life was fraught with hardships. She had met and married a sailor named Jack Staines, and had a baby girl. There were the daily struggles of finding food, clothing, and shelter. There were attempts to kidnap her back into slavery, which forced her into hiding. When not in hiding, she was always looking over her shoulder.

George Washington died in 1799, a year after the final attempt to kidnap Judge, and Martha died three years after her husband in 1802. The mansion where Judge once lived with the family has long since been demolished. Today in its place is a national historic site called The President’s House where, along with that of the first family, the stories of Judge and the other enslaved members of the Washington’s household are revealed and acknowledged through illustrations, video, and artifacts.

Oney Judge Staines went on to have two more children and to learn how to read. Because she was never freed, she would remain a fugitive until the day she died.

Decades after her great escape, she was asked if she would have changed her mind and returned to slavery if she knew how much harder her life was going to be. “No,” replied Judge, then in her seventies, “I am free.”

 —Audrey Peterson