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Friday, February 28, 2020

Finding Her Own Way: Ona Judge Outwits the Washingtons by Gwendolyn Hooks

As an enslaved child, Ona Judge had a better life than most. Instead of working in the fields or kitchen, she was trained by her mother, Martha Washington's seamstress, who taught her to spin, weave, sew fine dresses, and serve as a lady's maid to Mrs. Washington, wife of George Washington, first president of the United States.

As she grew up, Ona learned to make stylish gowns and style Martha Washington's hair. She cleaned her shoes and mended and ironed her clothes. The work days were long, but young Ona was with her mother each day, as they moved first to New York, the first capital, and then to the new capital of the United States, Philadelphia, where Ona saw free black people living without masters and mistresses.

But then things changed abruptly. Mrs. Washington told them that Ona was to be sent to Mrs. Washington's granddaughter, Betsey Custis, as a wedding gift.

Ona knew Betsey well from her many visits to Mount Vernon. Could she bear Betsey's harsh demands and cruel punishments?

In Philadelphia, Ona felt freedom was within reach.

And when a free black man came to clean the chimneys, Ona asked for his aid in helping her escape.
One evening in May, 1796, Ona quietly left the Presidential Mansion as the family ate supper. 


With the help of her friend, she took a ship to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where she took cleaning jobs and kitchen work go support herself. Spotted by a friend of the Washington family there, Ona managed to disappear before she could be captured and returned to slavery. She met and married a free black man who worked as a sailor, and although the Washingtons sent emissaries to capture her, Ona managed to slip away each time. When asked if she had any regrets about leaving the service of the President, Ona always said,
"No. I am free,"

Gwendolyn Hooks'account of Ona Judge Staines, How Ona Judge Outwits the Washingtons: An Enslaved Woman Fights for Freedom (Encounter: Narrative Nonfiction Picture Books) (Capstone Editions, 2019) is an unusual story of an escaped slave, one who fled from the Philadelphia "White House." Ona's is a story of determination and cooperation, intelligence and good fortune, one that covers slavery in high places in the first days of the Republic. For Black History Month, author Hooks offers an author's note with additional facts about the life of Ona Judge and a bibliography for further reading for elementary school students.

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