“There’s a river running sweat right through our land.
Driven by a man with a bullwhip in his hand.
And I’ve taken just as much as I can stand.”
-- Elton John, “Slave” (1972)
“George’s entire life had been dunked in the miserable water of slavery; he had inherited ten slaves when he was just eleven, when his father died. This number got larger as George grew older and the amount of land he owned spread farther and farther. When he married Martha, who was a widow, he increased his landholdings--and his ownership of the enslaved. By 1773 there were close to two hundred slaves living at Mount Vernon. (Slave owners, including the Washingtons, referred to their human property as ‘servants,’ not slaves. Perhaps even way back then, among people who supported slavery wholeheartedly, this choice of words implied that somewhere, deep in their conscience, they knew it was wrong.)
If George wanted to create a gravel pathway in his gardens, he used the enslaved to move the earth and crush the gravel. If he wanted fabric made from linen, he used the enslaved to cut the flax, pull it through steel-nail combs, and eventually spin it to create the thread. If he wanted wooden barrels to be made, or laundry to be washed, or vegetables to be picked, or tools to be forged, he used the enslaved. Mount Vernon became a showplace, for sure, a mansion with a fancy red roof and black iron weather vane that visitors could see from miles away. George was immensely proud of his home and his lands. But if he hadn’t owned humans and forced them to do what he wanted, he would not have been as wealthy. George owed his riches to the marginalized enslaved.”
In the days of black and white TVs, landline telephones, and vinyl LPs, authors of history books for children frequently took great liberties in their writing. They often created fictional dialogue, indulged in prejudice, marginalized women, and treated suppositions and possibilities as historic fact. As a kid in the 1960s, I read plenty of such “history” books. Back then, 99% of them were written about some famous white man who was duly placed upon a pedestal to be worshipped.
Educated people and mainstream publishers have long since upended such nonsense. In the 21st century, we’ve come to expect more honest, accurate, and diverse history writing, in the same way that we’ve replaced antiquated gadgets with laptops, iPhones, digital TVs, and streaming music.
“...may have explained…”
“...Ona would have been…”
“...Maybe she thought…”
“...Maybe she had already heard…”
“...maybe she was wondering…”
“...Ona probably tried…”
“...she would have been…”
“...Historians agree that…”
I thoroughly enjoyed NEVER CAUGHT, a captivating young reader’s edition of Dunbar and Van Cleeve’s 2017 book about Ona Judge, which was named a National Book Award finalist. In NEVER CAUGHT, the two educator-authors clearly delineate between what was and what might have been. This makes for a lot of “maybes” and “probablys” but it keeps the telling accurate and honest.
In comparison to what is known about the “father” of our country and our first First Lady, there is far less information about their slave, Ona Judge. Nevertheless, the authors deliver an engaging tale by subtly weaving in vast amounts of factual information about slavery and the political tension over slavery that steadily escalated during the late 1700s and early 1800s.
In the hands of these authors, this American history is crazy fascinating. For instance, we learn about the compromise by which it was decided that the new federal government would be located in a city to be built along the Potomac River. (It was eventually named Washington, D.C. after George’s death.) Meanwhile, the federal government was temporarily located in Philadelphia.
Edmund Randolph, a Founding Father and America’s first Attorney General, screwed up big-time by not thoroughly understanding a 1780 Pennsylvania law. The law stated, “If an enslaved person was brought to Pennsylvania by a slave owner from another state, the enslaved person would be freed if they remained in Pennsylvania for longer than six months.” It turned out that three of Edmund Randolph’s slaves learned of and understood the law better than Washington’s Attorney General! Six months in Philadelphia went by, and the trio promptly claimed their freedom. Ha! So much for that nonsense that slaves were not capable of learning!
Randolph went running to the Washingtons to warn them to avoid this trap. George and Martha then initiated a sly system under which their slaves were regularly shuttled in and out of Philadelphia, to repeatedly restart the six-month time clock and prevent them from gaining freedom.
When Ona Judge was in her twenties, having faithfully served Martha Washington for more than a decade, Martha decided to give her to the Washingtons’ granddaughter as a wedding present. The granddaughter was a brat who Ona had known most of her life. This apparently was the last straw.
“Ona had always done what was expected of her. This time she would not.”
Ona successfully escaped from the Washington household and from Philadelphia. Details about George Washington’s temper tantrum, willingness to trample on laws he had helped enact, and to plan a kidnapping in order to seek Ona’s quick return will further tarnish his reputation as a great American. Fortunately, a somewhat-hero intervened in the kidnapping scheme, Ona Judge was never caught, and she did not end up back in Mount Vernon being mercilessly punished for her escape.
This is a triumphant tale that underscores the fact that, for all his arguable greatness, George Washington was a racist slave owner. Those Confederate flag lovers are going to hate this book.
Recommended by: Richie Partington, MLIS, California USA
272 pages 978-1-5344-1617-8 Ages 10 and up (Grades 5 and up)
A National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction, Never Caught is the eye-opening narrative of Ona Judge, George and Martha Washington’s runaway slave, who risked everything for a better life—now available as a young reader’s edition!
In this incredible narrative, Erica Armstrong Dunbar reveals a fascinating and heartbreaking behind-the-scenes look at the Washingtons’ when they were the First Family—and an in-depth look at their slave, Ona Judge, who dared to escape from one of the nation’s Founding Fathers.
Born into a life of slavery, Ona Judge eventually grew up to be George and Martha Washington’s “favored” dower slave. When she was told that she was going to be given as a wedding gift to Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Ona made the bold and brave decision to flee to the north, where she would be a fugitive.
From her childhood, to her time with the Washingtons and living in the slave quarters, to her escape to New Hampshire, Erica Armstrong Dunbar (along with Kathleen Van Cleve), shares an intimate glimpse into the life of a little-known, but powerful figure in history, and her brave journey as she fled the most powerful couple in the country.--from the publisher