Never Caught

The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge

Never Caught

Finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction

“A fascinating and moving account of a courageous and resourceful woman. Beautifully written and utilizing previously untapped sources it sheds new light both on the father of our country and on the intersections of slavery and freedom.” —Eric Foner, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Fiery Trial and Gateway to Freedom

A startling and eye-opening look into America’s First Family, Never Caught is the powerful narrative of Ona Judge, George and Martha Washington’s runaway slave who risked everything to escape the nation’s capital and reach freedom.

When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation’s capital. In setting up his household he took Tobias Lear, his celebrated secretary and eight slaves, including Ona Judge, about whom little has been written. As he grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change he couldn’t get his arms around: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to circumvent the law. Every six months he sent the slaves back down south just as the clock was about to expire.

Though Ona Judge lived a life of relative comfort, the few pleasantries she was afforded were nothing compared to freedom, a glimpse of which she encountered first-hand in Philadelphia. So, when the opportunity presented itself, Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England. Yet freedom would not come without its costs.

At just twenty-two-years-old, Ona became the subject of an intense manhunt led by George Washington, who used his political and personal contacts to recapture his property.

With impeccable research, historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar weaves a powerful tale and offers fascinating new scholarship on how one young woman risked it all to gain freedom from the famous founding father.
  • Atria / 37 INK | 
  • 272 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781501126390 | 
  • February 2017
List Price $26.00 (price may vary by retailer)
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Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Never Caught includes discussion questions for your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Ona Judge was born during the era of the American Revolution and spent her childhood at Mount Vernon. Was Ona’s life typical of other enslaved children?

2. What do we know about Ona Judge’s lineage? What does it tell us about race, slavery, and sex in the eighteenth century?

3. How do George and Martha Washington become slaveholders? In what ways are they similar as slaveholders and how do they differ?

4. In 1789, George Washington is elected president and moves to New York. Who accompanies him and how does New York differ from Virginia?

5. How does Ona’s life change once she is taken to New York and Philadelphia? What kinds of responsibilities are placed upon her shoulders and how are they different from Ona’s work in Virginia?

6. What do we know about slavery and freedom in Philadelphia? How does it differ from New York? What kind of effect does the free black community have on Ona’s life?

7. How do George and Martha Washington manage their slaves while living in Philadelphia?

8. What prompts Ona to escape fro see more

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About the Author

Erica Armstrong Dunbar
Photograph by Whitney Thomas

Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Erica Armstrong Dunbar is the Charles and Mary Beard Professor of History at Rutgers University. She also serves as Director of the Program in African American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia. Her first book, A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City was published by Yale University Press in 2008. She is also the author of Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave Ona Judge.

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