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"I am free now"

I had listed four stops for our March 15, 2022 women's history road trip to Bristol and

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania— 2 Harriet Tubman statues, a marker for Hannah Callowhill Penn, and a historic site, the President's House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation that commemorates the lives of enslaved Africans at the site of the Nation's first executive mansion. An open-air historic site in Phildelphia (the nation's capital from 1790-1800), one block from Independence Hall and a few steps from the Liberty Bell, the President's House has no roof, just brick walls and window frames. Video screens featuring performances by character interpreters and illustrated panels are mounted on the walls.

President George Washington and his family and his enslaved people lived there from 1790-1797. One of the enslaved people—Ona Judge, the maid for Martha Washington—fled to freedom. Because of the Fugitive Slave Law that Washington had signed in 1793, Ona could be recaptured and returned to him.

President Washington made repeated attempts to capture her. In an advertisement announcing that she had "absconded" and offering a $10 resard for her recapture, Ona, whom the Washingtons called Oney, was described as having "very black eyes and bushy black hari . . .of middle stature, slender, and delicately formed." The ad noted that she had "many changes of good clothes, all sorts," the good clothes were the result of her attending to Martha Washington, including accompanying her to public events.

The sympathetic captain of the ship Nancy took Ona to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. There she eventually married a free black sailor, had two children, and learned to read and write.

Years later, in 1847, Ona Judge Staines told her story to a visitor who published a letter with her account in an abolitionist newspaper. Her husband and children had died, and she was legally considered a "pauper," living with a free black woman, Nancy Tank, in Greenland, New Hampshire. The visitor asked if she "is not sorry she left Washington, as she has labored so much harder since, than before." She replied "No, I am free."


Below are three landmark panels at President's House with the text that is inscribed on them.

“I and my household”

On November 22, 1790, President Washington arrived at the President’s House to establish his home and office. With him were eight enslaved African descendants, ordered by Washington himself to be rotated back to Mount Vernon to evade Pennsylvania’s gradual abolition law that would have allowed them to petition for their freedom after six months residence.

The enslaved were Hercules, his son Richmond, Oney Judge, Oney’s brother Austin, Moll, Christopher, Giles, Paris, and later Joe.

“I am free now”

Oney Judge’s strong desire for freedom drove the 22-year-old enslaved seamstress to flee the President’s House on May 21, 1796. With the help of friends ofAfrican descent, she found passage to New Hampshire, where she married, raised a family and lived to old age.

“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. 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.”

“I will fear no evil “

Many evenings, Oney Judge would sit on her pallet where she slept/at the foot of Martha Washington’s bed, sewing and listening to the First Lady read the Bible, sing hymns, and pray with her two granddaughters in the next room.

In the 1840a, after nearly fifty years of freedom in New Hampshire, Oney (then Ona Judge told her story to the press. Oney fled the President’s House because she overheard Martha Washington state her intention of giving the young woman to her granddaughter: Oney wanted to learn to read and know about religion. Oney recalled that she/ had “never received the least mental or moral instructions of any sort.”

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