Review by Emily Spezia-Shwiff
Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar details the escape and life of Ona Judge, an enslaved woman who ran away from the Washingtons during the second presidential term. Never Caught begins with a detailed family tree of Ona Judge, descriptions of life in Mount Vernon, and then follows Judge on her journey with George and Martha Washington in public office, explores how she likely gathered the information and resources to make her escape, and showcases her escape from enslavement and the rest of her life as a freed woman. Never Caught is unique because Ona Judge does not have a large archive of materials from which Armstrong Dunbar can gather information. Armstrong Dunbar utilizes George and Martha Washington’s letters, journals, newspaper postings, and other written works to include more information about Ona Judge. She also details information about the Mount Vernon plantation, the Fugitive Slave Act, New Hampshire laws, and other archived information to expand the narrative and experiences of Ona Judge past her limited archive.
Armstrong Dunbar also infers what Ona Judge may have been thinking or feeling at different points in her journeys such as “For Judge, the move [to New York] must have been similar to the dreaded auction block.” (Armstrong Dunbar 22). This statement, while not archived as something Ona Judge said or felt, is historically sound. By including grounding information like this, it makes the narrative of someone who did not leave behind an expansive archive more plausible and relatable. It is unlikely that a person in the 21st century will have met a formerly enslaved person. This disconnect often makes it easier for young history students to not fully understand the horrors of slavery, the fear of a fugitive slave getting caught, and how a fugitive slave may never feel safe or settled once they escaped. Armstrong Dunbar implements a fiction-like approach to dissecting what Ona Judge may have felt or experienced during her life, except, unlike fiction, all the moments Armstrong Dunbar extrapolates are grounded in archival evidence of the period.
Never Caught not only depicts Ona Judge’s journey as a runaway slave of the president, it also reveals a darker, patriarchal side of George Washington that is not often discussed. Armstrong Dunbar details the interworking of Mount Vernon’s slave system, Washington’s careful plan to bypass Philadelphia’s emancipation law, and the quiet pursuit of Ona Judge once she escaped. This book does not take a celebratory stance of George and Martha Washington but instead truthfully examines their slavery practices. Although the Washingstons hid it at the time, Armstrong Dunbar brings to the forefront of her book how Washington’s slaves contributed to his time in office, and it is clear that the enslaved people were not only an important part of the functionality of the house, but an important aspect of George Washington’s wealth and respect outside of his political pursuits.
Never Caught: The Washington’s’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar is an impressive undertaking, one that details how a runway enslaved person of the United States’ first president managed to remain free despite being found and coaxed to return. Ona Judge remained firm in her resolve that being free was better than being enslaved by the president of the United States. Armstrong Dunbar filled Ona Judge’s narrative with dynamic moments by inserting how Ona Judge likely felt during life events. Utilizing only two short interviews to determine Ona Judge’s voice, Armstrong Dunbar was able to fill in the missing information with notes about Judge, information about other slavery practices, and historical events to complete the narrative of Ona Judge.