Rethinking Resistance: Ona Judge, the Washingtons’ runaway slave, and the meanings of escape

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Why do we remember some stories about the past while passively “forgetting” or actively erasing others? The story of a courageous young woman who resisted her shackles and left everything she knew to find freedom is told by Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar in her new book, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, which was nominated for a 2017 National Book Award. On January 23, the public is invited to hear Dunbar speak at an event supported by New Hampshire Humanities and hosted by Saint Anselm College at the Dana Center for the Humanities, followed by a moderated panel discussion.

Dunbar’s work beautifully demonstrates the power of the humanities to help us grapple with the complexity of American identity and resistance in the life of Oney Judge. Born into slavery at Mount Vernon, Judge fled to New Hampshire in her ’20s and lived there as a fugitive until her death at 75. George Washington so feared the impact of her freedom story on his reputation that he went to great lengths to ensure her return, seeking political favors while New Hampshire officials deftly misdirected these requests. The divide between “complicity” and “resistance” in the lives of Judge, New Hampshire politicians, and the Washingtons seem absolute; Dr. Dunbar’s talk urges us to challenge our assumptions and consider questions that are pressing today. What did it mean to resist and be complicit in the slave-holding ideology of the late 18th and early 19th centuries? How does New England’s slave-holding past shape its present? And how can considering the ways citizens and slaves in this story understood their ethical responsibilities shape our own sense of responsibility as a citizen?

Ona Judge’s story was once widely known. Her rediscovery speaks to our modern willingness to see our national heroes in a more complex light, as slaveholders but also as people concerned about their personal and historical image. It also speaks to our need for a wider, and more diverse, pantheon of heroes and heroines who seem to represent both human and national values of freedom, courage, and determination. We all agree that all human beings deserve freedom, but what is our responsibility to enable that freedom? Dr. Dunbar’s talk will be followed by a moderated panel discussion led by Saint Anselm College faculty Dr. Jennifer Thorn and Dr. Beth Salerno. Earlier in the day, Dr. Dunbar will hold a campus workshop for students and faculty on working with primary documents. 

“It is an honor and an obligation to give a voice to the unknown,” said Dr. Dunbar. “As an historian, I spend countless hours rescuing women from historical anonymity and while I wrote Never Caught for multiple reasons, the driving force was to introduce Ona Judge and her life to the world," said Erica Armstrong Dunbar. She was one of the millions of enslaved women who found a way to survive, to live, and to love under the brutality of slavery. It became immediately clear to me that Never Caught could also tell the incredible story of the founding of the nation through the eyes of the enslaved. By centering on a black woman’s experiences, readers have an opportunity to reimagine our American narrative.”

About the author: Erica Armstrong Dunbar focuses on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century African American women’s history. Her first book, A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City (2008), was the first book to chronicle the lives of African American women in the North during the early years of the Republic and the years leading to the Civil War. A Philadelphia native, Dunbar was formerly the Blue and Gold Professor of Black Studies and History at the University of Delaware, and has recently joined the faculty at Rutger’s University where she was named the Charles and Mary Beard Professor of History.