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Meet the slave who escaped from George Washington's Philly mansion and was never caught

Erica Armstrong Dunbar was flipping through Philadelphia newspaper archives from the turn of the 19th century when she uncovered something shocking.

"I came across the advertisement for a slave who had run away from the president's house. I thought, 'Who is this woman they're referring to, Oney Judge?' And, 'Wait a minute! The president is advertising for a runaway slave? In Philadelphia? In 1796? Why don't I know this story?' "

That encounter with Oney (who also went by Ona) was more than 20 years ago. Dunbar, of Wyncote, a professor of black studies and history at the University of Delaware, has spent nearly eight years coaxing Judge out of the shadows.

Dunbar tells the story in a new book, Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (Feb. 7, Atria, $26). She'll speak at the Central Library of the Free Library on Feb. 23.

"I want to introduce the world to Ona Judge so that, hopefully, she will become a household name the same way that we know Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman," Dunbar said. "Ona Judge predates all of them by decades. She predates even a loosely organized Underground Railroad."

Uncovering the story wasn't easy work. Scholars of African American women's history are used to scant sources; tracking a fugitive is even more vexing.

"If you spend your life trying not to be found, it becomes more and more difficult to put the pieces of someone's life together."

Dunbar combed through old newspapers for marriage and death announcements, tracked down ship records and census data, plus two interviews Judge did toward the end of her life with abolitionist newspapers. She even hiked, through poison ivy, to the place where Judge lived as an elderly woman and is believed to be buried.

What she came up with was a story of extraordinary grit.

In some ways, said the historian Eric Foner, "it is a story hidden in plain sight. Yet no one has ever really looked at it carefully.

"It's also a story about George Washington. There's a been a lot more attention recently on Thomas Jefferson and his role as a slave owner than on Washington, perhaps because he did free his slaves in his will. But you see him here as a slaveholder, not particularly different from any other slaveholder."

The Washingtons had nearly 150 slaves at Mount Vernon in 1773, the year Judge was born.

Ten years later, when Washington was elected president and was called to the capital -- first New York, then Philadelphia -- he and Martha brought a select group of slaves, including Judge, with them.

But there was a hitch: Pennsylvania had been moving toward abolition, and state law required that any slave brought into the commonwealth for more than six months be freed. So Washington found pretexts for shuttling his slaves in and out of the state, each time turning over the hourglass on emancipation. He did so quietly, willing to "deceive" the public if necessary.

So, with semiannual jaunts through this legal loophole, Judge remained in Philadelphia for six years -- until she learned she was to be given to Martha's granddaughter and sent south.

Instead, with help from the abolitionist or free-black community -- possibly including the Rev. Richard Allen, the Philadelphia spiritual leader who was known for helping runaways -- she found her way to Portsmouth, N.H.

There, Washington became the first president to abuse his authority by pushing a local customs official to find Judge and send her home without the due process the Fugitive Slave Act required. (The customs official, queasy about the endeavor, instead tried to negotiate with Judge. Unsurprisingly, he couldn't persuade her to return to slavery on her own.)

Still, Washington took her escape as a personal affront, and he pursued her up until a few months before his death.

"Following Ona from the South to the North, we see that there's no straight line to freedom. Each state was working it out differently," Dunbar said. "She was never free; she was simply never caught. She remained a fugitive until the day she died in 1848."

When Washington died, his will that provided for his slaves' eventual freedom. (Judge technically belonged to Martha Washington, who did not free her slaves.)

Daina Ramey Berry, a historian at the University of Texas-Austin who also studies slavery, said putting flesh onto the fragmented remains of this past was an achievement.

"She's able to tell us the story of what it was like to be enslaved by the first president of the United States. We don't have a lot of scholars that have written about it in that level of detail," she said. "To do it with such scant sources -- I think what Dr. Dunbar has done is really opened up avenues for learning how to do this research."

Dunbar acknowledges that the book feels, in some ways, oddly timely -- this story of a president whose economic interests appear to conflict with his office.

"But I think the more interesting story is the story about resistance, about a 22-year-old enslaved woman who knew that by running away from her owners, it would be breaking the law, but she did it," she said. "That story of resistance can be traced through American history, and now we see people still resisting and protesting for what they believe to be their rights as citizens."