June 28, 2007


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The Escape of Oney Judge: Martha Washington’s Slave Finds Freedom, by Emily Arnold McCully (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007)
Reviewed by Lisa Parsons news@hippopress.com

Before she married George, Martha Washington was married to Daniel Custis, and when he died she inherited his slaves, including young Oney Judge. Oney lived with the Washingtons at Mount Vernon, then in New York City, then in Philadelphia, where she first saw free blacks and decided to take the leap, not so much because she hated life with the Washingtons as because she hated the prospect of being sold when Martha died, if not sooner. Some free blacks helped her find passage on a ship, never mind where to as long as it was away, and she wound up in Portsmouth, N.H., where she learned to read, got married, had a baby, and lived the rest of her life, a fugitive. She was helped at one point by New Hampshire Sen. John Langdon, who sent her a warning to leave when a nephew of Martha’s was on the hunt for her. (I gather this story from this book plus a few Web sites.)

The picture book is likely to raise, in its young audience, obvious questions like what was the father of our freedom-proclaiming country doing owning slaves, and if Sen. Langdon was so great how come he didn’t, instead of just warning Oney to hide, make some anti-slavery laws. If this book’s target audience of grade-school kids asks those questions, they’ll have to find their answers elsewhere. Only the face of the story is here.

You can find an 845 an interview published in The Granite Freeman (a Concord newspaper) interview at www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse/slaves. The site says she died in Greenland, N.H., in 1848, probably around 80 years old. B — Lisa Parsons