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Source: CityPaper
Date: July 8, 2009
Byline: Bruce Schimmel

The Handmaiden's Untold Tale (Oney Judge)

Alexandra Ford as Oney Judge, Martha Washington's favorite slave, about to flee to freedom.

If you're walking near Independence Hall, and happen upon a young woman in an 18th-century frock doing needlework, I suggest you wait and watch for the look of shock on the faces of passers-by as they hear the tale of Oney Judge.

Oney Judge is a new character in a cast of some 30 historical figures that wander around the Liberty Bell, fixing visitors with glittering eyes and curious tales. Judge's story is especially compelling. On a recent sunny day, Alexandra Ford, the actress who plays Judge, demurely recounts her saga: from Virginia field hand, to Martha Washington's favorite handmaiden in the new President's House in Philadelphia.

She tells how George Washington would "circle out" his Philadelphia slaves, periodically returning them to Virginia to circumvent a Pennsylvania law that would have forced him to set them free.

"George Washington may not tell a lie," she says in a soft Virginia drawl. "But he doesn't always tell the truth."

This handmaiden's tale is mostly still untold. It was literally buried in history, until America's first executive mansion was excavated in 2007 and 2008.

As an inside slave in an opulent household, Oney's life was more comfortable than most. But in 1796, after learning that Martha planned to give her away as a wedding present, she fled to freedom.

Washington tried to recapture Oney, sending men to hunt her down in New Hampshire. Martha's favorite refused, and Washington eventually relented. Oney stayed in New Hampshire, where she married, raised a family and died in 1848 as a free black woman.

But the Oney Judge that quietly cross-stitches near the Mall is still in her early 20s in 1796. Ford portrays her caught between the lure of liberation and the perils of freedom.

For Ford, a recent magna cum laude graduate in acting from Montclair State, this role marks an auspicious beginning that's filled with coincidence. Like Oney, Ford also comes from an African and Irish heritage, and at 23, she's about Oney's age.

The New Jersey native slyly lets the curious pull out the details. "I want them to come to me, I'm not going to force it."

Because when they get to the part about her being an unemancipated slave, says Ford, a funny thing happens.

Older folks, black or white, "almost always look away and cast down their eyes." says Ford. "Like they're ashamed."

But children simply accept her being a slave, she says, and move on. Ford recalls how one school group, learning that she (like most slaves) couldn't read, "spent like 40 minutes trying to teach me."

Ford remembers one girl running for her school bus, calling back with, "I hope they set you free!" Of course, Oney Judge didn't wait for someone else to free her. Martha's favorite liberated herself, by courageously defying the new nation's most powerful man — if perhaps not always its most truthful.


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