Reading makes my daily half-hour exercise routine go by faster, especially after I discovered the uBooksXL app for my iPhone, which has a wonderful auto-scroll feature.
Lately, I’ve been reading mostly nonfiction during my morning stint on the NuStep. Having just finished Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” (highly recommended), I decided to try a book I found on Amazon with the intriguing title of “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.”
And it’s proving as thought-provoking as I suspected it would. In her biography of Judge, Erica Armstrong Dunbar relates the story of Ona Judge’s early life at Mount Vernon, how her life changed when George Washington was elected president, and her eventual escape after Martha Washington decided to transmute Judge into a wedding present for her granddaughter. After all, Judge was just one more of the Washington family’s possessions.
And that got me to thinking about the similarities between Ona Judge and another enslaved black woman, Ann Lewis, who had also been a wedding present, but who was freed by her owners, moved with them to Kendall County, and started a family that still lives in the area.
Ona Judge (also known as Oney) had been born at the Washingtons’ plantation, Mount Vernon, about 1776, from the union of her enslaved mother, Betty, and her white father, Andrew Judge, a Mount Vernon tailor. Ona was trained as a seamstress and body servant. When the Washingtons left Mount Vernon for Philadelphia, New York, and Philadelphia again after George Washington’s election as president, she accompanied the first lady.
A 1788 amendment to Pennsylvania’s Gradual Emancipation Act mandated that slaves brought into the state would automatically be freed after six months’ residence. Washington circumvented the law by sending slaves who were nearing six months in Philadelphia back to Virginia, before bringing them back again to restart freedom’s clock.
That was undoubtedly annoying enough for the Washingtons’ slaves who understood perfectly well what George and Martha were doing. But when Martha informed Ona she was to be a wedding gift for Martha’s mercurial granddaughter, Elizabeth Parke Custis, that was apparently too much. Ona’s plans included gradually taking most of her few possessions to the home of a free black family in Philadelphia and then slipping out of the household in May 1796 while the Washingtons ate dinner.
Retrieving her meager possessions, she boarded the sloop Nancy, whose destination was Portsmouth, New Hampshire, making good her escape. In Portsmouth, she found work, got married, and had children with her husband, Jack Staines, a free black seaman, all the while fending off slave catchers dispatched over the next several years by the angry Washington family. Meanwhile, Ona learned to read and write – against the law for black people in Virginia. She also became a Christian – it turned out the Washingtons also provided no religious training or services for their enslaved workers.
While he could have engaged the legal system set up under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 – which he himself had signed into law – the intensely private Washington wished his slave-catching activities to remain discreet. Unfortunately for him, they also remained ineffectual, as Judge had determined never to return to enslavement. She remained classified as an escaped slave the rest of her life, as did her three children. Even though they were born in a free state and their father was a free black man, Virginia law insisted that since they were the children of an enslaved mother, Ona’s three children, too, were the property of Martha Washington’s heirs.
Ona Judge Staines died in 1848, having outlived her husband and all three of her children. But she managed to snatch a bit of immortality when she gave interviews to abolitionist publications, the only first-person accounts by one of Washington’s slaves ever published.
Ann Lewis, on the other hand, was ripped from her family at the age of 7 when her owner, John Gay, a wealthy planter in Woodford County, Kentucky, decided to present the child as a wedding gift to his daughter, Elizabeth, upon her 1842 marriage to Elijah Hopkins. After the wedding, the Hopkinses settled with Elijah’s family just across the Ohio River in Ohio. While Ann started out as a slave, she was freed the minute she crossed into Ohio. Although free, she continued to live with the Hopkins family, helping the couple raise their several children.
When the Hopkins family moved to Illinois in 1857, they bought land along modern Wolf’s Crossing Road just east of today’s Route 71-Route 34 intersection in Oswego. There they farmed, raised prize-winning horses, and operated their limestone quarries.
After helping the Hopkinses raise their children, Ann Lewis decided to start her own, marrying local farmhand Henry Hilliard. The couple farmed along Wolf’s Crossing Road for some years before moving to Aurora, where they raised their three children and helped establish Aurora’s Colored Baptist Church (now Main Baptist Church). Ann Lewis Hilliard died at the home of her son, William, on Farnsworth Avenue in Aurora at the age of 106 after an incredible, long life. She is buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery.
Two enslaved females who were turned into wedding gifts, leading to freedom for one and a life of worry about losing the freedom of herself and her children for the other. “In nothing was slavery so savage and relentless as in its attempted destruction of the family instincts of the Negro race in America,” wrote educator and activist Fannie Barrier Williams. But both Ann Lewis and Ona Judge figured out how to defy that very effort, a good lesson for all of us during this year’s African-American History Month.
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