May 23rd, 1796

Ad Offers Reward for Return of Runaway Slave to President George Washington

On May 23, 1796, a newspaper ad was submitted for publication that sought 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. 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.”

Known to the Washingtons as “Oney,” Ms. Judge was a dower slave given to Martha Washington by her father and had been held 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 slave ownership rules, including Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 guaranteed slaves of non-residents freedom after living in Pennsylvania for six months, and this provision would have applied to Ms. Judge. However, to avoid enforcement of the law and emancipation of their slaves, the Washingtons regularly sent their slaves out of state 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. On the night of May 21, 1796, 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 slaves 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 slave advertisements like the one submitted on May 23, which offered a $10 reward for her return. Ms. Judge evaded capture. She lived, married, and had several children as a free woman in New Hampshire. She died, still free, on February 25, 1848.