Never Caught: Book summary and reviews of Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Never Caught

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

by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar X
Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar
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Book Summary

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 it all to escape the nation's capital and reach freedom.

When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left behind his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation's capital, after a brief stay in New York. In setting up his household he took Tobias Lear, his celebrated secretary, and nine slaves, including Ona Judge, about which 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 one clear and pleasant spring day in Philadelphia, 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.

Impeccably researched, 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.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"A startling, well-researched slave narrative that seriously questions the intentions of our first president." - Kirkus

"This work adds new insights into the little-known story of Ona Judge and provides an important look at America's first president from the perspective of a woman he enslaved. Recommended for readers interested in U.S. history." - Library Journal

"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 in the flawed republic he helped to found." - Eric Foner, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Fiery Trial and Gateway to Freedom

"Totally engrossing and absolutely necessary for understanding the birth of the American Republic, Never Caught is richly human history from the vantage point of the enslaved fifth of the early American population." - Nell Irvin Painter, author of Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol

"With vivid prose and deep sympathy, Dunbar paints a portrait of woman whose life reveals the contradictions at the heart of the American founding: men like Washington fought for liberty for themselves even as they kept people like Ona Staines in bondage. There is no way to really know the Washingtons without knowing this story." - Annette Gordon Reed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello

"We see Washington - a man torn by conflicting sentiments about slavery - in a new and ambiguous light, and plunge with Judge into the teeming cities of the young republic, where for the first time Americans are beginning to grapple with the contradiction between the Founders' ideals and the unyielding fact of slavery. No one who reads this book will think quite the same way about George and Martha Washington again." - Fergus M. Bordewich, author of The First Congress

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Author Information

Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Erica Armstrong Dunbar is the Blue and Gold Professor of Black Studies and History at the University of Delaware. In 2011, Professor Dunbar was appointed the first director of the Program in African American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia. She has been the recipient of Ford, Mellon, and SSRC fellowships and is an Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer. Her first book, A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City was published by Yale University Press in 2008.

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