Sheila Arnold refuses to portray Sojourner Truth or Harriet Tubman. These African-American women are already well represented in enactments, she said, so she searches for others whose stories also deserve to be told.
On Sunday afternoon at the Montpelier Mansion in Laurel, Arnold gave her interpretation of Oney Judge, who forsook a comfortable life as the top maidservant of First Lady Martha Washington for freedom, before a packed audience of about 35 people.
The life of Oney Judge
Arnold entered the room in full character wearing a wig of short, curly gray hair under a white elastic cap; an olive blouse; an ankle-length skirt and a white apron. Arms shaking, she hobbled toward the front of the room and sank into a simple wooden chair.
With an energy that belied her years, Arnold proceeded to share the life story of Judge. She grew up the child of two slaves of George and Martha Washington at their Mount Vernon estate. Martha Washington took a liking to her, and at age 10, she was adopted as her personal maidservant.
While training for this servitude, Judge learned "how to be a chair." This meant that, until she was wanted, she would try to be an unnoticed part of the room.
"It would make me angry," murmured an audience member.
"No, ma'am," Arnold shot back, "it didn't make me angry; it make me wise."
Judge developed an understanding of "the Mistress Washington" during this time, Arnold said, based on their shared experience of forbearance. When George Washington became the first President in 1789, his wife did not desire the role of First Lady. Yet "she was a woman who called upon duty before comfort, and she was a good wife."
The family moved to Philadelphia — the seat of the presidency until 1800 — and Judge was exposed to free African Americans. Their mere presence planted the concept of freedom in her mind. She was still content, however, to remain the First Lady's maidservant. She led a comfortable life replete with fine petticoats, shoes and well-tended fires, Arnold said.
Every six months, the Mistress "longed for home," or so Judge believed, and they would return to Mount Vernon. The actual reason for these trips was more deceitful, Judge finally learned — the Washingtons were keeping her enslaved. Philadelphia law held that a slave could sue for freedom after living there for at least six months.
At this time George Washington was nearing the end of his term, the family was preparing to return to Mount Vernon permanently and Judge had a decision to make. Would she return home to slavery, or would she run to freedom? After consulting with some free blacks, she decided.
"I had a complete thirst for freedom," she said.
She boarded a ship, was stowed in the gangway and landed in Portsmouth, N.H.
Years later, Judge was recognized in the streets of Portsmouth, and word got back to the former president, who demanded through a third party that she return. Judge insisted upon returning to Mount Vernon on her terms, however, as a free woman.
"She had the courage to try to negotiate with the first president of the United States," Arnold said in an interview before her performance.
George Washington refused to negotiate with a slave, but he never forced Judge to return.
"He knew my whereabouts, I suspect, to the end of his days" Judge mused, "but he ain't come to get me."
Judge continued living a less comfortable but freer life in New England until her death in 1848.
George Washington as reformer
Arnold's enactment was as much about the potential for change as embodied in George Washington as it was about Judge. The African American community commonly sees the slave-owning Founding Fathers simply as oppressors, Arnold said in the interview, yet the reality is more complex, she insisted.
The former president changed from a traditionalist who would not fight alongside black men, nor shake the hand of a black woman, she said, to a reformer who, in his will, freed his slaves and provided for their education.
Arnold attributes this change to Washington's strength of character and to the power of being challenged by new ideas and experiences. Serving alongside capable black soldiers in the American Revolution and knowing an upstanding, assertive black woman such as Judge may have influenced him to see African Americans more as people than as property.
"Everyone, when given the opportunity to see other sides, can make a change in their opinion," she said.
Arnold, a native of Odenton, is the president and lead performer of History's Alive!, a performance organization that brings historical figures to life.
Slavery at Montpelier Mansion
The staff of Montpelier Mansion, a National Historic Landmark, does not shy away from the subject of slavery on the property.
"Slavery was essential to the running of the house," said Ann Wagner, assistant manager at the mansion. For example, slaves worked two labor-intensive iron foundries on the property. At its peak, the Montpelier Mansion in Laurel spanned 9,000 acres and had about 140 slaves, added Mary Jurkiewicz, the museum manager.
Despite its ownership of slaves, the property-owning Snowden family was Quaker. Major Thomas Snowden, who presided over the construction of the mansion from 1871 to 1875 and hosted George and Martha Washington at least twice, was ostracized from his religious community in part because it tended to be abolitionist, Jurkiewicz said. His membership in a militia and his vast wealth also ran counter to prevailing Quaker beliefs, she added.
After Major Thomas died in 1803, his widow Ann became a devout Quaker and granted freedom to some slaves, Jurkiewicz said. By about 1840, there were no more slaves on the property, she added.
The staff at the property decided to host Sheila Arnold's performance to honor Black History Month and shed light on African-American experiences during the colonial era.