On this dayMay 23, 1796

President George Washington Offers Reward for Capture of Black Woman Fleeing Enslavement

Image | American Daily Advertisement, New York Times

On May 23, 1796, a newspaper ad was placed seeking the return of Ona “Oney” Judge, an enslaved black woman who had “absconded from the household of the President of the United States,” George Washington. Ms. Judge had successfully escaped slavery two days earlier, fleeing Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and settling in freedom in New Hampshire.

Known to the Washingtons as “Oney,” Ms. Judge was given to Martha Washington by her father and had been held enslaved as part of the Washington estate since she was ten years old. As George Washington gained political clout, Ms. Judge traveled with the family to states with varying laws regarding slavery -- including lengthy residence in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 declared that black people enslaved by non-residents of the state were legally freed after living in Pennsylvania for six continuous months. To avoid enforcement of the law and retain ownership of the men and women they enslaved, the Washingtons regularly sent Ms. Judge and others in the household out of state for brief periods, to restart the six-month residency requirement.

When her eldest granddaughter, Eliza Custis, married, Martha Washington promised to leave Ms. Judge to the new couple as a gift in her will. Distressed that she would be doomed to slavery even after Martha Washington died, Ms. Judge resolved to run in 1796. On the night of May 21st, while the Washingtons were packing to return to Mt. Vernon, Ms. Judge made her escape from Philadelphia on a ship destined for Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She had befriended many enslaved people in Philadelphia and they helped her to send her belongings to New Hampshire before her escape.

The Washingtons tried several times to apprehend Ms. Judge, hiring head-hunters and issuing runaway advertisements like the one submitted on May 23rd. In the ad, she is described as “a light mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes and bushy black hair. She is of middle stature, slender, and delicately formed, about 20 years of age.” The Washingtons offered a $10 reward for Ms. Judge's return to bondage -- but she evaded capture, married, had several children and lived for more than fifty years as a free woman in New Hampshire. She died there, still free, on February 25, 1848.

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