Oney Judge

Elfreth's Alley

Oney Judge had been a favorite of Mrs. Washington. She had been enslaved by the Washingtons since she was about 10 years old. George Washington described her as being "the particular attendant on Mrs. Washington" and the "perfect Mistress of her needle"; meaning she made beautiful clothes. Oney most likely accompanied the First Lady on the various afternoon teas that Martha Washington attended. Oney probably spent time in the kitchens while her Mistress was in the parlor sipping tea. Oney surely got to know many Africans, enslaved and free, and began to get ideas about taking her own freedom.

Philadelphia was the largest port in the nation and Oney would have had many opportunities to escape by ship to some other place. In fact, Oney was spotted in Portsmouth, New Hampshire by a friend of Nelly Custis (the President's Granddaughter), who recognized Oney from when she played with Nelly at the President's House. Washington sent word to Portsmouth that he wanted Oney back, "put on board a Vessel bound immediately to this place."

The Customs Officer in Portsmouth wrote the President that he had actually found Oney. He wrote that "she expressed great affection and Reverence for her Master and Mistress, and without hesitation declared her willingness to return and serve with fidelity during the lives of the President and his Lady if she could be freed on their decease, but that she would rather suffer death than return to Slavery and liable to be sold or given to any other person".

It appears that Oney was negotiating with the President for the terms of her freedom. The President wrote back to the Customs Officer:

"To enter into such a compromise with her, as she suggested to you, is totally inadmissible, for reasons that must strike at first view: for however well disposed I might be to a gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of People (if the latter was in itself practicable at this moment) it would neither be politic or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference; and thereby discontent before the minds of all her fellow-servants who by their steady attachments are far more deserving than herself of favor."

It seems the President was not about to agree to Oney's offer. He could not grasp what the Customs Officer told him, that Oney's:

"thirst for compleat freedom...had been her only motive for absconding".

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