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Own a Judge

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By Grant Davies

No, this is not a story about the justice system in Chicago. It’s the story of a remarkable young lady from a different time. Her name was Ona Judge.

It was May 24th, 1796, when the chance meeting of our subject and an acquaintance took place on a Portsmouth, New Hampshire street.  A twenty year old girl named Oney (Ona) Judge was hailed down by Elizabeth (Bets) Langdon,  just a teenager herself, who recognized her. Bets knew Oney because her father was a Senator and Oney worked for a friend of his. Oney had run away from home, Bets knew about it, and couldn’t understand why. Reportedly, the conversation went like this;

“Why Oney, where in the world did you come from?”
“Run away missis.”
“Run away! You had a room to yourself, and only light, nice work to do, and every indulgence…”
“Yes..I know..but I wanted to be free, missis.”*

Now, I know you’re thinking to yourself, “What’s so interesting about this story? Kids run away from their homes all the time so they can have their freedom. Big deal!” Well…Oney wasn’t running away from her parents. She was a slave running away from her master and her mistress.

And the person who owned Ona wasn’t just any slave owner. The person just happened to be Martha Dandridge Custis. Anyway, that was her name before she remarried following the death of her husband, Daniel Parke Custis. Her name changed to Martha Dandridge Custis Washington when she remarried a guy named George Washington. You may have heard about him when reading some of our earlier stories. (We’ve written about or mentioned him in no less than a dozen previous stories.) But enough about her owners; they are well known enough.

This story is about Ona and what she did with her life after she became one of the first people to use the Underground Railroad. In her case, the railroad was actually a ship, the “Nancy” by name. She boarded it the same day she casually walked away from the President’s house in Philadelphia, right in the middle of the family’s supper. The soup must have been pretty tasty; they never looked up long enough to notice her leaving with her suitcase.

The ship was sailing north and she disembarked in Portsmouth where the chance encounter with the Senator’s daughter took place some time later. She spent the rest of her life trying to bargain with the President for her freedom and dodging the agents he sent to retrieve her. She even offered to return if he would agree to free her in his will. Apparently he wasn’t interested in negotiating with a slave, particularly one who he considered part of the family. The Washingtons were quite fond of her, having raised her since she was ten when she became Martha’s attendant. It’s said that Martha was heartbroken.

Oddly, she was once hidden and protected by the same Senator (John Langdon) whose daughter had accidentally spilled the beans concerning her whereabouts. Later she married a free man, had three children, became a widow, and lived most of her life in circumstances far below that which she could have had by staying with the first “First Family.” Escaping into poverty and hardship from privilege and comfort says everything that can be said about the value of liberty in 1796.

I hate to point out the irony, but the populace of the country today seems to have chosen the exact opposite.

To celebrate the life of this freedom loving girl, stop down at Nancy’s Underground Railroad for some supper and a drink. But don’t leave right in the middle of dinner unless you want the owner to send people looking for you.

 * text taken from the excellent book Here is Where, by Andrew Carroll

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