About 50 people gathered under the hot sun at Independence Mall on Friday to remember and acknowledge an unusual event — the successful escape of an enslaved African woman from the household of the first president of the United States.
"Today, we are here to celebrate the brave and daring escape of Oney Judge," attorney Michael Coard said through a bullhorn while supporters and onlookers gathered near the corner of Sixth and Market Streets.
"It's important that the story of our enslaved ancestors be told. If we don't tell it, nobody will."
On May 21, 1796, Judge slipped out of Washington's residence while the president and his wife, Martha, were eating their supper. Judge was a young woman at the time, about 23, and a skilled seamstress and attendant for Martha Washington.
With the assistance of the city's substantial community of free blacks, Judge made her way to a ship and sailed off down the Delaware River and away from Philadelphia, eventually ending her journey in New Hampshire.
Two days after her disappearance, Washington placed an advertisement in a local paper offering a reward of $10 for her return.
"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 black hair," the advertisement said.
A memorial is under construction at the site of the Washington residence — known as the President's House — which also was home to the nation's second president, John Adams, until 1800.
During Washington's presidency, at least nine enslaved Africans lived and toiled in the house. The commemorative memorial, scheduled to open in November, explores the system of slavery at the founding of the country and specifically recognizes the nine enslaved Africans by name.
Several of the nine attempted escape, or were suspected of planning to flee by the vigilant president and first lady, but only Judge managed the feat from Philadelphia.
Washington's enslaved chef, Hercules, also escaped, and it was thought he did so from Philadelphia. But references recently discovered by historians at Washington's Mount Vernon, Va., plantation indicate Hercules fled from there.
Oney Judge married, raised a family in New Hampshire, and died there on Feb. 25, 1848. She was pursued by the president but never captured.
Her story, said Dr. Daddase Ekulona, one of those in attendance Friday, "shows how desperately all men seek freedom, and all women, and we continue to seek freedom."