Books

story behind the book | kate tuttle

Saga of slave who escaped from the Washingtons and lived on the run

david wilson for the boston globe

Historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar first met Ona Judge in the archives while working on her first book, “A Fragile Freedom,” which chronicled the lives of free and enslaved black women in northern cities in the 19th century. Judge, who had been born into slavery at Mount Vernon, the human property of Martha Washington, escaped while living with the president and his wife in Philadelphia in 1796; although the Washingtons spent the rest of their lives trying to capture her, Judge lived as a fugitive for another half century, mostly in and around Portsmouth, N.H.

“Over time it became clear that Ona needed a book of her own,” said Dunbar, a professor of history at the University of Delaware. “To me it felt like a sort of important American hero story: a 22-year-old woman who stands up to the president of the United States as an enslaved person and as a fugitive, who makes the decision that she will no longer stomach her enslavement.”

Dunbar was careful about the title of her new book, “Never Caught,” which focuses on Ona, her escape, and the Washingtons’s pursuit of her. “I didn’t use words like ‘freedom’ or ‘free,’ because the reality is that Ona was never free. She lived as a fugitive for the rest of her life,” Dunbar said. “She wasn’t free; she was simply never caught.”

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The story is bigger one woman’s struggle, Dunbar added. “Ona gives us this perfect opportunity to look at the creation of a new nation through the eyes of the enslaved,” she said.

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“This is an important part of American history,” Dunbar said. “I want us to know Ona’s story and to connect it to what the founding years of this nation looked like. That’s my hope — that people walk away knowing her, knowing her life story, and understand the life stories of others whose names have not been reclaimed.”

Dunbar will read 7 p.m. Monday, in conversation with Annette Gordon-Reed, at Harvard Book Store.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.