Reverend T.H. Adams, a 19th century reporter for The Granite Freeman, was the first to get the scoop on a fugitive slave living in exile not so far from the abolitionist newspaper’s base in Concord, New Hampshire.
Adams arrived in June of 1845 to find himself at the door of a simple coastline home. Inside, he found a “withered” woman by the name of Oney Maria Judge Staines. Once the favorite waiting maid of Martha Washington, wife to first American President George, she once wore and sewed fine clothing. But Adams could see that she now lived in abject poverty.
Yet she had no regrets. “No, I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means,” she told the reporter.
Though already in her seventies, there was a “fire” that “kindled in her age-bedimmed eye,” Adams wrote, as she spoke of choosing hardship over enslavement, and jeopardy over misfortune.
It was May 21, 1796, when Oney, also known as “Ona,” fled from the Washingtons’ residence in Philadelphia to Portsmouth, N.H. She was only 20 years old.
She never looked back.
For several hundred years, history forgot to look back as well. It took over two centuries after her daring escape for Oney’s story to become known again.
The potential irony of The President’s House
In 2003, plans were released for a new feature at Independence National Historical Park: The President’s House, a reconstruction of George and Martha’s Philadelphia home.
Per Coxey Toogood and Jed Levin, chief historians at the park, the irony of the design quickly became apparent.
“It was just going be a lovely path that would later lead up to the Liberty Bell exhibit,” Levin said in an interview. “The irony of this is that the path would have been directly on top of where the President designated the quarters of his nine slaves to be.”
Many community organizers, including the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, focused their energy on persuading the National Park Service to create a “slavery memorial” instead of the so-called lovely path. Eventually, they were successful in getting their proposal approved. The project gained a new name that reflected this change: “The Presidents House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation.”
Now came the tricky part for the historians: Compiling information for the exhibit — and deciding what to do with the surprising info they found.
A president who loved having slaves
According to Levin and Toogood, Washington was “tight-lipped” about his slave ownership at the temporary White House, because Philadelphia had a “fairly large, vigorous, and one might even say prosperous free black community” and widespread pro-abolition sentiment.
He was especially wary of disclosing any information regarding the — in Washington’s own words — “impudent” and “ungrateful” slave that got away.
Much of what the historians at INHP relied on about Oney came primarily from interviews conducted by two abolitionists, Adams and Reverend Benjamin Chase for The Liberator, a thesis written by Evelyn Gerson for Harvard University, and letters exchanged between the Washingtons and Oney during her time in exile.
While George and Martha may have treated their nine slaves “relatively well” in Philadelphia, the scholars found, the Washingtons’ treatment of the nearly 300 slaves they owned in Mount Vernon was far less palatable. And they took special steps to ensure their Philly slaves remained firmly in their ownership.
As decreed by An Act for The Gradual Abolition of Slavery, one of the first “gradual abolition” acts of its kind to ever pass in the country, slaves brought to Pennsylvania were allowed to apply for freedom after six months of being in the state. But Washington would “routinely find loopholes” to ensure the slaves he brought to Pa. could never apply — including sending them on “overnights” in nearby New Jersey before their six months was up.
Sure enough, every almost-six months, Oney was shipped off to Trenton with Martha.
Protected by New Hampshire
Nobody is sure who helped Oney flee, and nobody knows how she planned it.
Being owned by a beloved Founding Father makes escaping all the more difficult. Even though Philadelphia was majority pro-abolition, people might have been willing to aid “so long as they hadn’t known she was a slave of Washington’s,” Levin noted.
However, even with a $10 reward for her return (back in those days, that was a lot of dough), once she made it out, Oney was never turned in by the people who knew of her whereabouts in New Hampshire. “They had her back,” comedian Jen Kirkman hiccuped in her rendition of Oney’s tale for an episode of Drunk History.
Washington wasn’t willing to give up easily. In 1799, two years after Oney’s escape, her wrote to William Whipple — “a sort of Customs Enforcement Official in New Hampshire” — asking him to seize her at once.
Oney, now a mother and a married woman, told Whipple to write back with the message that she would surrender, but only under the condition that her children would be free and she could be free once he and Martha passed away. Whipple thought this to be “a reasonable request.”
How did Washington reply?
Per the park historians, “No way!”
Never liberated, she died in freedom
Oney got lucky, as Washington died before he could continue pressuring government officials to return her to him.
“People are still wary of revealing that George Washington was a slave owner because he’s so revered in our history,” Levin said. “He’s almost like a mythical legend. I think a lot of this was swept under the rug because nobody wanted to besmirch what Washington means for our country.”
Oney Maria Judge Staines lived in relative peace for almost 50 years as a fugitive slave.
Though liberated from the Washingtons, she was never officially freed. She died in 1848 and was buried in Greenland, New Hampshire, where she rests along with her husband, her three children, and the Jacks family.
In 2010, Mayor Nutter proclaimed May 21st as “Oney Judge Freedom Day” in Philadelphia. In December, the new Independence National Historic Park exhibit opened, memorializing her memory.