By Lori Wysong
Elm Staff Writer
At a campus named for our nation’s first president, it can be easy to focus on George Washington’s achievements and neglect to have a conversation about his flaws. On Tuesday, Feb. 27, Guy Goodfellow Lecturer Erica Armstrong Dunbar didn’t shy away from the first president’s shortcomings.
Dunbar is the Charles & Mary Beard professor of history at Rutgers University, and has contributed to numerous documentaries and publications. She recently published the book “Never Caught: The Washington’s Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.”
Dr. Carol Wilson, professor of history, introduced the speaker.
“Recently at Washington College we have been moving toward a more nuanced understanding of our patron, one that goes beyond unthinking reverence of Washington as a Founding Father,” she said.
In front of a full Litrenta Lecture Hall, Dunbar presented her new book about a woman who escaped from her life of enslavement under the Washingtons. The lecture was co-sponsored by the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience and the William James Forum.
Dunbar came across Judge’s story while researching for a previous book. When she saw a runaway advertisement in an old newspaper that began “Absconded from the house of the President of the United States,” she said “it stopped me in my tracks.”
Wilson said, “We cannot understand George Washington without understanding slavery; we cannot comprehend what it means to be an American without comprehending slavery.”
Judge was born at Mount Vernon as a slave of Martha Washington. When Washington was elected to the presidency, Judge was forced to travel with the family to New York, the nation’s capital at the time, and then to Philadelphia when the capital moved.
Dunbar said that, while slavery was still considered fairly normal in New York, “It became odd in Philadelphia.”
As an enslaved person, Judge was in the minority among the African-American community. According to Dunbar, Philadelphia had recently passed a law saying that visiting slaves could be emancipated if they stayed in the city longer than six months.
To avoid this possibility, Washington devised a system of slave rotation, in which he would send some of his slaves home to Mount Vernon every six months.
“This is one of those moments as a researcher, as a historian where I’m like ‘George, what are you doing?'” Dunbar said. “We have to understand and recognize that while George Washington wasn’t necessarily breaking the law, he was breaking the spirit of the law.”
Judge eventually escaped to New Hampshire in order to avoid being given as a wedding present to Martha Washington’s granddaughter. While Dunbar did not go into detail about how Judge managed to stay hidden once she had freed herself, she did say that the Washingtons “would literally spend the rest of their lives pursuing her,” even using federally appointed officials to conduct the search.
As a fugitive, Judge led a difficult life in New Hampshire.
“She guarded what she called her freedom every day of her life,” Dunbar said.
Dunbar believes that by telling Judge’s story, she is introducing “a new American hero.”
“It is an honor and a privilege and an obligation for me to tell this story,” she said.