Black History Month: Oney Judge, owned by Pres. George Washington | IN THE NEWS

[February 10, 2017 by toritto] [ Our thanks to Frank for this]

“Advertisement,” The Philadelphia Gazette & Universal Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, May 24, 1796

“Absconded from the household of the President of the United States, ONEY JUDGE, a light mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes and bushy hair. She is of middle stature, slender, and delicately formed, about 20 years of age.

She has many changes of good clothes, of all sorts, but they are not sufficiently recollected to be described—As there was no suspicion of her going off, nor no provocation to do so, it is not easy to conjecture whither she has gone, or fully, what her design is; but as she may attempt to escape by water, all masters of vessels are cautioned against admitting her into them, although it is probable she will attempt to pass for a free woman, and has, it is said, wherewithal to pay her passage.

Ten dollars will be paid to any person who will bring her home, if taken in the city, or on board any vessel in the harbour;—and a reasonable additional sum if apprehended at, and brought from a greater distance, and in proportion to the distance.     —FREDERICK KITT, Steward. May 23″

Oney “Ona” Judge was a mixed raced slave on George Washington’s plantation at Mount Vernon, Virginia. Born in 1773 at Mount Vernon, her mother.  Betty, was an enslaved seamstress; her father, Andrew Judge, was an English tailor working as an indentured servant at Mount Vernon.

Betty had been among the 285 African slaves held by Martha Washington’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis (1711–1757).  Custis died without a will, so his widow received a “dower share” – the lifetime use of one third of his Estate, which included at least 85 enslaved Africans.  Martha had control over these “dower” slaves, but did not have the legal power to sell or free them.  Upon Martha’s marriage to George Washington in 1759, the dower slaves came with her to Mount Vernon, including Betty, Oney’s mother to be.

Under Virginia colonial law the legal status of a child was the same as that of the enslaved mother, no matter who the father was.  Because Betty was a dower slave, Oney also was a dower slave, owned by the Custis Estate.  Upon the completion of his indenture, Andrew Judge, her father settled in Alexandria, Virginia, some 11 miles away.

At about age 10, Oney was brought to live at the Mansion House at Mount Vernon, likely as a playmate for Martha Washington’s granddaughter Nelly Custis.  She eventually became the personal attendant or body servant to Martha Washington.

George Washington took Oney, then 16 years old to New York City along with six other slaves to work in the Presidential household.  All eventually moved to Philadelphia with Washington when the national capital was transferred there in 1790.

Now Pennsylvania was the first state to enact an emancipation law for all of its slaves.  In 1780 Pennsylvania required the registration of all slaves of its residents.  They would remain slaves but any of their children would be born free, resulting in gradual emancipation.  Non-residents, such as George Washington, a slaveholder from another state could reside in Pennsylvania with his personal slaves for up to six months, but if those slaves were held in Pennsylvania beyond that deadline, the law gave them the power to free themselves.

A 1788 amendment to the state law closed loopholes – such as prohibiting a Pennsylvania slaveholder from transporting a pregnant woman out of the state (so the child would be born enslaved) and prohibiting a non-resident slaveholder from rotating his slaves in and out of the state to prevent them from establishing the six-month Pennsylvania residency required to qualify for freedom.  This last point would affect the lives of Oney Judge and the other President’s house slaves.

Washington contended (privately) that his presence in Philadelphia was solely a consequence of the city’s being the temporary seat of the federal government.  He held that he remained a resident of Virginia, and should not be bound by Pennsylvania law regarding slavery.  Attorney General Edmund Randolph – misunderstood the Pennsylvania law and lost his personal slaves after they established a six-month residency and claimed their freedom.

Randolph immediately warned Washington to prevent the President’s House slaves from doing the same, advising him to interrupt their residency by sending them out of the state.  Such a rotation was a violation of the 1788 amendment, but Washington’s actions were not challenged. He continued to rotate the President’s House slaves in and out of Pennsylvania throughout his presidency.  He also was careful never to spend six continuous months in Pennsylvania himself, which could be interpreted as establishing legal residency.  At least once Martha Washington took Oney to Trenton New Jersey for two days to interrupt her six month residency in Pennsylvania.

Judge fled as the Washingtons were preparing to return to Virginia for a short trip between sessions of Congress.  Martha Washington had informed her that she was to be given as a wedding present to the First Lady’s granddaughter.   Judge recalled in an 1845 interview:

“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.”

The President of the United States wanted his slave returned. Runaway advertisements in Philadelphia newspapers document Judge’s escape to freedom from the President’s House on May 21, 1796.

Oney was secretly placed aboard the Nancy, a ship piloted by Captain John Bowles and escaped to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  She may have thought she had found safe haven, but that summer she was recognized on the streets of Portsmouth by Elizabeth Langdon, the teenage daughter of N. H. Senator John Langdon and a friend of Nelly Custis.  Washington knew of Judge’s whereabouts by September 1, when he wrote to Oliver Wolcott, Jr., the Secretary of the Treasury, about having her captured and returned by ship.

At Wolcott’s request, Joseph Whipple, Portsmouth’s collector of customs, interviewed Judge and reported back to him.  The plan to capture her was abandoned after Whipple warned that news of an abduction could cause a riot on the docks by supporters of abolition.  Whipple refused to place Judge on a ship against her will, but relayed to Wolcott her offer to return voluntarily to the Washingtons if they would guarantee to free her following their deaths.

An indignant Washington responded himself to Whipple: “I regret that the attempt you made to restore the Girl (Oney Judge as she called herself while with us, and who, without the least provocation absconded from her Mistress) should have been attended with so little Success.  To enter into such a compromise with her, as she suggested to you, is totally inadmissible, for reasons that must strike at first view: for however well disposed I might be to a gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of People (if the latter was in itself practicable at this moment) it would neither be politic or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference [of freedom]; and thereby discontent before hand the minds of all her fellow-servants who by their steady attachments are far more deserving than herself of favor.”

Washington retired from the presidency in March 1797.  His nephew, Burwell Bassett traveled to New Hampshire on business in September 1798, and tried to convince her to return.  By this point she was married to a seaman named Jack Staines (who was away at sea) and was the mother of an infant.  Bassett met with her, but she refused to return to Virginia with him. Bassett was Senator Langdon’s houseguest that night, and over dinner he revealed his plan to kidnap her.  This time Langdon helped Oney Judge Staines, secretly sending word for her to immediately go into hiding.  Bassett returned to Virginia without her.

Washington could have used the federal courts to recover Judge Staines — the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act (which he had signed into law) required a legal process to return an escaped slave over state lines.  Any court case, however, would have been part of the public record, and attracted unwelcome attention.

Interviews with Oney Judge Staines were published in the May 1845 issue of The Granite Freeman and the January 1847 issue of The Liberator, both abolitionist newspapers.  They contained a wealth of details about her life.  She described the Washingtons, their attempts to capture her, her opinions on slavery, her pride in having learned to read, and her strong religious faith.

When asked whether she was sorry that she left the Washingtons, since she labored so much harder after her escape than before, she said: “No, I am free, and have, I trust been made a child of God by the means.”

She remained a fugitive slave in New Hampshire all of her life.  When George Washington died, concerned with his reputation, he freed all of his slaves but he did not own the dower slaves belonging to his wife.  When Martha Washington died the dower slaves reverted to the Custis Estate and were awarded to other descendants of her family.

Oney Judge Staines was never freed but she escaped to New Hampshire and lived free.

Source: Oney Judge – For Black History Month | toritto


In the News

Frederick Douglass, Refugee
David Blight, Feb 7, 2017, The Atlantic

Frederick Douglass, author, orator, editor, and most important African American leader of the 19th century, was a dangerous illegal immigrant. Well, in 1838 he escaped a thoroughly legal system of enslavement to the tenuous condition of fugitive resident of a northern state that had outlawed slavery, but could only protect his “freedom” outside of the law.

Douglass’s life and work serve as a striking symbol of one of the first major refugee crises in our history. From the 1830s through the 1850s, the many thousands of runaway slaves, like Douglass, who escaped into the North, into Canada, or Mexico put enormous pressure on those places’ political systems. The presence and contested status of fugitive slaves polarized voters in elections; they were the primary subject of major legislation such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as well as Supreme Court decisions such as Dred Scott v. Sanford in 1857. They were at the heart of a politics of fear in the 1850s that led to disunion. Among the many legacies of Douglass’s life and writings alive today, one of the most potent is his role as an illegal migrant and very public abolitionist orator and journalist posing as a free black citizen in slaveholding America.



Yale Will Drop John Calhoun’s Name From Building
Noah Remnick, Feb. 11, 2017, The New York TimesAfter a swelling tide of protests, the president of Yale announced on Saturday that the university would change the name of a residential college commemorating John C. Calhoun, the 19th-century white supremacist statesman from South Carolina. The college will be renamed for Grace Murray Hopper, a trailblazing computer scientist and Navy rear admiral who received a master’s degree and a doctorate from Yale.The decision was a stark reversal of the university’s decision last spring to maintain the name despite broad opposition. Though the president, Peter Salovey, said that he was still “concerned about erasing history,” he said that “these are exceptional circumstances.”

“I made this decision because I think it is the right thing to do on principle,” Mr. Salovey said on a conference call with reporters. “John C. Calhoun’s principles, his legacy as an ardent supporter of slavery as a positive good, are at odds with this university.”



President Trump recently described Frederick Douglass as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.” The president’s muddled tense – it came out sounding as if the 19th-century abolitionist were alive with a galloping Twitter following – provoked some mirth on social media. But the spotlight on one of America’s great moral heroes is a welcome one.

Douglass was born on a plantation in Eastern Maryland in 1817 or 1818 – he did not know his birthday, much less have a long-form birth certificate – to a black mother (from whom he was separated as a boy) and a white father (whom he never knew and who was likely the “master” of the house). He was parceled out to serve different members of the family. His childhood was marked by hunger and cold, and his teen years passed in one long stretch of hard labor, coma-like fatigue, routine floggings, hunger, and other commonplace tortures from the slavery handbook.

At 20, he ran away to New York and started his new life as an anti-slavery orator and activist. Acutely conscious of being a literary witness to the inhumane institution he had escaped, he made sure to document his life in not one but three autobiographies. His memoirs bring alive the immoral mechanics of slavery and its weapons of control. Chief among them: food.



Maryland: first anti-miscegenation statue in 1661

1661: The “First” Mixed-Race Milestone
It should be noted that the Loving v. Virginia ruling in 1967 applied to the 16 remaining states that had enacted anti-miscegenation statutes. Thus it is a fallacy to state that ‘interracial marriage was illegal in the United States until Loving v. Virginia. Most states had in fact, repealed their anti-miscegenation laws and a few never enacted any such laws at all (New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Wisconsin, District of Columbia, Hawaii and Alaska). FROM MIXED RACE STUDIES

Guest Post by Steven F. Riley

It is a surprisingly common misconception among many that the year 1967 represents the first milestone for people of ‘mixed-race’ in the United States.  Without a doubt, 1967 is a significant milestone because it is the year that the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Loving v. Virginia case overturned the remaining anti-miscegenation laws in the 16 states that still had them.  But we should look back—not a few years…nor a few decades—but a a few centuries, before 1967 to 1661, where the then colony of Maryland codified the first anti-miscegenation statue.  Such laws would be enacted throughout the United States up to and including Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924.  (After 1924, anti-miscegenation laws would either be upheld or overturned until 1967, when the remaining ones were all overturned.)

If we expand our view to the entire Americas, our first milestone is the Spanish law of  October 19, 1514 which explicitly permitted intermarriage with Indians1, 500 years ago!

Although records of the very first union between Europeans, Native Peoples (Indians), and Africans is lost to us, it is clear by the laws enacted to allow, regulate, and restrict those unions, they had been occurring for decades prior to their enactment.  Such unions had been occurring too in the American colonies between Europeans and Indians, (and some African indentured servants) until around 1619—the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade—when African slaves came en masse and providing an even larger population in with to mix.  Finally, in 1661 the Maryland act condemned…

…free-born English women who intermarry with Negro slaves: “whatsoever free-born woman shall intermarry with any slave, shall serve the master of such slave during the life of her husband; all the issues [children] of such free-born women, so married, shall be slaves as their fathers were.”2

1661 by no means represents the beginning of the societal condemnation of miscegenation in the American colonies, but it is the year in which the white male dominated society of the American colonies began transforming their fears into legislative actions.  Twenty-one years prior, a [white man,] Robert Sweat of Virginia was to “do penance in church according to the law of England, for getting a negro woman with child, and the woman to be soundly whipped.”3  Nine years later in 1649, another white man, Williams Watts, and a black female slaved named Mary (owned by Mr. Cornelius Lloyds) were…

“…ordered each of them to doe penance by standing in a white sheete with a white Rodd in their hands in the Chapell of Elizabeth River in the face of the congregation on the next sabbath day that the minister shall make penince service and the said Watts to pay the court charges.”4

During the early part of the transatlantic slave trade, the ratio of black women to white women in the colonies was estimated to be 9-to-1. Thus is not surprising that interracial relationships, if not condoned, were tolerated.  However, as the slave trade continued, the increasing number of offspring from the unions between white men and black women—and free black men and white women to a much smaller extent—created a social and moral conundrum for those who wished to enforce the boundaries between “superior” whites and “inferior” black slaves.

One of the first mechanisms enacted to diminish the social and moral conundrum of the increased numbers of mulatto children was to reverse centuries of English law, which prior, transferred the condition (status) of the father to the child.  With this reversal, offspring  from the union of a white man and black female slave would be slaves at birth.  This new situation provided white slaveholders with access to both black female concubinage and a continuous supply of newborn slaves, which would continue despite increasing punitive anti-miscegenation laws, until the end of the Civil War, some nearly 250 years later.

While illegal unions between white men and black women may have frequently gone unpunished, the same cannot be said of unions between black men and white women. Common law forbade the enslavement of children born to white women, thus miscegenation between black men (free or enslaved) and white women would produce free-born mulatto offspring.  The apparent social confusion caused by legions of free mixed-race individuals and enslaved mixed-race individuals was deemed too dangerous for the emerging slaved-based economies of the tobacco, sugar and cotton producing slave owners.

Though it is quite appealing to remember 1967 as the Summer of Love, and the Lovings, there is the risk of reducing the history of ‘mixed-race’ America to the last 40 years instead of the entire 400-year span of (Columbian) American history.  So instead, remember one-six-six-one (1661).

1Laws Regulating Interracial Intimacy (1514-1987)


MIXED RACE STUDIES, Steven F. Riley: Mixed Race Studies ( is a non-commercial website