The story of rebellious Oney Judge is finally being told, along with those of other slaves who lived with George and Martha Washington in Philadelphia.
To George and Martha Washington, her owners, she was "the girl."
To the framers of the Constitution, who she was didn't matter — she was three-fifths of a person, a chattel slave.
Oney Judge was only about 16 when she came to Philadelphia, the nation's temporary capital, in 1790.
A few years later, she learned she was about to be given away by the Washingtons as a wedding gift. She gathered herself up and refused, defying the president, the Constitution, and all the powerful forces arrayed against her.
"I was struck by just the sheer improbability of what she did," said Cheryl J. LaRoche, a historical and archaeological consultant who worked on the excavation of the President's House, Washington's Philadelphia home, during the summer of 2007.
"Women, and black women in particular, were so deeply limited by the whole society, and black women, of course, by slavery. They were the last people, you would think, who would have the wherewithal to attempt to escape."
"Oney's sense of her self and of her self-worth," LaRoche said, led the young woman "to make a claim for herself and for her freedom."
For decades Judge's story went untold at Independence National Historical Park, site of the President's House, where the Washingtons lived with Judge, eight other slaves, and a group of servants. But controversy fueled in 2002 by the park's silence revived the unspoken story of Judge and many others, giving voice to their narratives.
Now a park memorial is planned for the house site at Sixth and Market. A sheaf of new stories, such as Judge's, will be told there, and are being woven into programs and talks throughout the park as officials seek to broaden the presentation of 18th-century life, revising and amplifying the story of the nation's founding in the process.
"This is a marketing society and, in a cynical sense, black tourism is growing and there is a strong desire from black tourists for black history," said Sharon Ann Holt, program director for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities at Rutgers. "I don't think that's necessarily a negative. This story is hot.
"But where that hotness is coming from is a new mobilization of black folk looking for history not just to worship, but history they can use. African American history retains its political core. They understand that knowing the past becomes important to shaping the present and the future. That's big. That's not cynical."
Oney Judge was born on Washington's Mount Vernon estate in Virginia around 1774. Her mother, Betty, was an enslaved seamstress and her father a white indentured tailor, Andrew Judge, according to research by Ed Lawler Jr., the independent historian whose dogged efforts precisely located the President's House and established the probable location of its slave quarters.
Austin, an older child of Betty's, was Oney Judge's half-brother. He also came with the presidential family to Philadelphia, where Lawler believes he worked as a stablehand and slept in the slave quarters with fellow slaves Giles and Paris.
Judge, on the other hand, slept in the main house and, for a period at least, had her own room. She was strong, by her own account, and like her parents excelled with needle and thread. Her skin was the color of pale coffee, and sprinkled with freckles.
Martha Washington's needs were Oney Judge's first priority; she was a body servant to the first lady and a companion to her grandchildren, accompanying them to various events, including the circus.
It was during those trips, presumably, that Judge became friendly with free Africans. There were about 6,500 in Pennsylvania in 1790, an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 in Philadelphia. A large number lived on the block where the National Constitution Center now sits at the northern end of Independence Mall, only two blocks from the President's House.
On that block, in a small brick house on North Fifth Street rented by James Oronoko Dexter, Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, William Gray, Dexter, and other free blacks met to discuss issues of pressing concern to their community. In 1787 the group had founded the Free African Society, the nation's first black self-help and civic organization; a few years later it was meeting at Dexter's house to discuss formation of the city's first black churches — Jones' St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, with Dexter and neighbors Israel Burgow and Robert Venable in leadership roles, and Richard Allen's Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
As far as UCLA history professor Gary Nash is concerned, these efforts of Philadelphia's early free African leaders mark them as "the founding fathers of black America."
Peter Glumac, an archaeologist who oversaw extensive excavations that preceded construction of the Constitution Center in 2000, is awed by Dexter and his associates.
"For African Americans themselves, this is the turning point," Glumac said. "This little experiment in 18th-century Philadelphia, this is where it began. . . . Here, black individuals first stood up and formed their own unions and institutions."
It is more than likely that, in her travels around town, Oney Judge came in contact with free Africans living near the President's House. She saw, even as she lived with other slaves in Washington's household, the potential for freedom; she saw it, even as Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, steps away from the room where she slept. The act criminalized escape, penalizing not only escaped slaves but those who assisted them.
Early in the summer of 1796, after learning that Martha Washington intended to make a wedding present of her, Oney Judge took all three-fifths of her personhood into her own hands and plotted her escape.
"Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn't know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty," Judge told an abolitionist interviewer in 1845. "I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington's house while they were eating dinner."
She remained hidden by her friends until a boat with a willing captain could be found to carry her away. She sailed north and eventually took up residence in New Hampshire.
Washington was both angered and perplexed by what he saw as Judge's ingratitude. He asked his Treasury secretary, Oliver Wolcott, for assistance in finding the runaway.
"I am sorry to give you, or any one else trouble on such a trifling occasion, but the ingratitude of the girl, who was brought up and treated more like a child than a Servant (and Mrs Washington's desire to recover her) ought not to escape with impunity if it can be avoided," he wrote.
Martha Washington was equally confounded and wrote that Judge could only have been seduced into escape by "a Frenchman."
After Judge was spotted on the streets of Portsmouth, N.H., Wolcott directed the local customs collector to secure her return to Philadelphia. The collector, Joseph Whipple, interviewed Judge, and warned Wolcott that abduction would be a poor idea, possibly sparking a riot on the dock.
"After a cautious examination it appeared to me that she had not been decoyed away [by a Frenchman] as had been apprehended, but that a thirst for compleat freedom which she was informed would take place on her arrival here & Boston had been her only motive for absconding," Whipple wrote to the Treasury secretary.
Judge tried to negotiate with the president — the promise of her ultimate freedom in exchange for her return — but he angrily refused. Even after leaving the presidency he continued to seek her return, and in 1798 sent his nephew to New Hampshire with instructions to bring her back.
By this time she had married a sailor, Jack Staines, was the mother of a young child, and had no intention of returning to bondage. Warned that another kidnapping initiative was brewing, she went into hiding. Washington's nephew returned to Mount Vernon empty-handed.
Judge had three children with Jack Staines and outlived them all. She taught herself to read and sought out a quiet, pious life. When interviewed by abolitionists in the 1840s, she was a pauper living in Greenland, N.H. And though George and Martha Washington had been dead for nearly half a century, she was still a fugitive slave, who could have been seized and returned to Virginia at any time.
An abolitionist asked her if, given the uncertainty and poverty of her life, she was sorry she had left Washington's comfortable household.
"No," she replied. "I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means."
Oney Judge died at 75 on Feb. 25, 1848. On the 160th anniversary of her death earlier this year, Philadelphia lawyer Michael Coard and an organization he helped found, the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, held a ceremony commemorating her death.
City Council and Mayor Nutter issued proclamations in her honor.
Coard spoke to the small crowd gathered at the site where the President's House once stood, where the nation's first laws were signed and where Oney Judge — utterly powerless, afraid and alone — had gathered up her dignity and refused to be given away as a wedding gift.
It was, Coard told those assembled, an extraordinary display of courage.
"She said, 'No!' "
Go to go.philly.com/presidentshouse for photos, video, audio and stories about the President's House excavation.
Enslaved at 6th and Market
George and Martha Washington's Philadelphia household numbered about 30, including family, 15 white indentured servants, several secretaries, and nine slaves. Pennsylvania had begun the gradual abolition of slavery in 1780 but freed only those born after the law took effect, and only when they reached the age of 28. Slaves brought to Pennsylvania, however, were deemed free after six months in residence; to circumvent that, Washington rotated slaves in and out. Those known to have lived in Philadelphia, who will be commemorated in the President's House memorial, were:
Oney Judge, Martha Washington's personal servant. Escaped in 1796. More is known about her than any of the other enslaved household members because she gave interviews to abolitionist journals.
Hercules, Washington's renowned chef, who escaped about a year after Judge. He vanished without a trace.
Austin, Judge's half-brother, a stable worker thought to have slept in the quarters behind the house. He was thrown from a horse and killed in 1794.
Giles, a driver or a footman on Washington's carriages who, says historian Ed Lawler Jr., probably lived in President's House slave quarters. Injured early in the 1790s, he returned to Mount Vernon. There is no record of his death.
Paris, a young stable worker who probably lived in the Philadelphia slave quarters. According to Lawler, his "misbehavior" angered Washington, who sent him back to Mount Vernon. He died in 1794.
Richmond, Hercules' son and a kitchen worker in Philadelphia. His mother was Lame Alice, a Mount Vernon seamstress. While at Mount Vernon, Lawler says, he was caught stealing money, which Washington believed augured an escape attempt. Richmond was made a laborer, his subsequent life unknown.
Moll, a nanny for Martha Washington's children and possibly grandchildren.
Joe, a coachman in Philadelphia, whose presence in the presidential household Lawler discovered in 2004.
Christopher Sheels, Washington's personal servant. He was present when Washington died in 1799.
Homage to the 9
Avenging the Ancestors Coalition holds its annual July 3 event at the President's House, Sixth and Market Streets, on Thursday.
At 4:30 members will gather with local political figures for a reenactment of the lives of the nine enslaved Africans who lived there during George Washington's tenure. Information: 215-552-8751 or www.avengingtheancestors.com.