by Len Lear
In April of 2017, Robert Fles, retired teacher and administrator at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy and a former long-time resident of Chestnut Hill, wrote in these pages, “Just how imperfectly human (George) Washington was leaps from virtually every page of a new book about him. Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s title for her recently published book says it all: ‘Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.’”
Dunbar, who grew up in West Mt. Airy, will discuss her book about “The Father of Our Country’s” dogged attempts to reclaim his escaped slave on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 7 p.m., in the Honickman Auditorium at Germantown Academy, 340 Morris Rd. in Fort Washington. This event is free and open to the public.
Dunbar, who is mid-40ish, graduated in 1990 from Germantown Friends School, where she was a “lifer.” She attended college at the University of Pennsylvania and then earned an M.A. and Ph.D from Columbia University. She taught at the University of Delaware before joining the Rutgers University faculty in 2017 as a history professor. Her first book was “A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City,” published by Yale University Press in 2008.
According to Fles, Dunbar’s book about “the other George Washington,” which was a National Book Award finalist, “shows how President and Mrs. Washington always brought slaves with them from Mt. Vernon to their New York City and Philadelphia residences [and] how assiduously Washington worked to retain his slaves. (To circumvent laws that freed slaves six months after their owners brought them north, he would track the time, then send his slaves out of state briefly before bringing them back for another six months.)
“[The book shows] how Martha Washington planned to give her ‘property,’ her personal slave, Ona Judge, to her granddaughter as a wedding present. How the courageous Ona escaped one evening via the Delaware River while the Washingtons dined. And, above all, how ‘relentlessly’ the President pursued Ona not only for the rest of his presidency but also for the rest of his life — and how crafty and devious his legal and sometimes illegal pursuit of her was, so that his public image would not be tarnished.”
Among the other honors for her book on the George Washington we never learned about in school, Dunbar was awarded the Frederick Douglass Book Prize, which is awarded annually by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History at Yale University. It is a $25,000 award for the most outstanding non-fiction book in English on the subject of slavery, abolition or antislavery movements.
Dunbar told us last week, “I am deeply humbled and grateful for the overwhelming response to the publication of ‘Never Caught.’ It was an honor to not only introduce Ona Judge’s story to a larger audience, but to also help readers see the founding of our nation through different eyes. Ultimately, writing the adult version of ‘Never Caught’ and now the new young readers’ version that was just published on January 8, 2019, was an honor and an obligation.”
It is appropriate that Dunbar will speak at Germantown Academy because, according to the author, “When Ona Judge, Martha Washington’s ‘favorite’ slave, escaped, the Washington family lived in Philadelphia, where their son, George Washington Parke Custis, attended GA …
“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 one spring day in Philadelphia, Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England. Yet freedom would not come without its costs.
“At just 22 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 … ”
For more information about the Feb. 5 event, please call 215-646-3300. For more information about Dunbar, visit ericaarmstrongdunbar.com