Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1423
Chapter 2: New York–Bound
George Washington spent eight and a half years leading the Continental Army in a surprising eventual defeat of the British Army. Upon his return home, he greatly looked forward to a private retreat at Mount Vernon. However, his leadership made him an obvious choice to lead the new country. At first, he tried to decline further obligations, such as the Constitutional Convention, and even evaded questions about serving as the first president of the United States. He finally agreed to serve if elected and soon found himself preparing to move his family to New York after being elected unanimously. Cash-strapped following the war, much like the country he was now tasked to lead, George had to acquire loans to finance this trip.
If George Washington wasn’t excited about the move to New York, his wife was all but dejected. She delayed joining him at first, and when George’s nephew arrived to serve as Martha’s escort to New York, he found the house in a confused state. Ultimately, Martha Washington had little say in the direction of her life; as a woman, she was compelled to follow her husband’s path, as hesitant as he was to take it himself.
Seven slaves were also selected for the trip to New York; one of those was sixteen-year-old Ona Judge. She must have faced conflicting emotions regarding the move. One one hand, she was leaving behind her mother and the only life she had ever known at Mount Vernon. On the other hand, she surely knew that slaves in the North had potential freedoms that those in the South could only dream of. In the end, Ona was forced to quieten her own fears about the move in order to prepare Martha Washington for the trip. Betty must have had many fears of her own as her daughter left Mount Vernon, and these fears were compounded by the additional accompaniment of her son, Austin, to the Washingtons’ traveling party. The slaves left behind at Mount Vernon would also need to adjust to new overseers and to the new leadership in the Washingtons’ absence.
William Lee, a slave who formed a relatively close relationship with George Washington, became a top contender to travel north with his master. Lee had spent time with George at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia fifteen years earlier and had formed a close relationship with a free Black woman there named Margaret Thomas. George even gave permission for Thomas to travel back with Lee and live with him at Mount Vernon. The resolution of their story is unknown, but it is clear that Thomas never made it to Mount Vernon. Lee desperately wished to travel north once more to accompany George Washington to New York; however, two tragic accidents left Lee in a condition that was not conducive to labor. He became largely unable to walk or move, yet George still chose him for the trip. Lee was unable to maintain the pace needed for travel and was left in Philadelphia for a time to recuperate. Two months later, he joined George Washington in New York.
Ona and Moll, a fifty-year-old seamstress, were the only bondwomen selected to travel to New York. Ona’s responsibilities lay primarily in caring for the needs of Martha Washington herself—preparing her bath, bed, clothing, hair, and health needs. Moll was primarily responsible for the grandchildren who traveled with the Washingtons. Both women spent the vast majority of each day consumed with caretaking and serving, with little to no private time.
Martha Washington stopped in Philadelphia en route to New York; she visited...
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an old friend but kept her distance from Benjamin Franklin, a former slaveholder who now increasingly denounced the practice. While Ona Judge spent time in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was likely penning essays supporting national abolition; he published several during that year alone.
Chapter 3: New York in Black and White
In the late eighteenth century, New York had a growing population of reformers who sought to challenge commonly accepted beliefs about slavery; one slave named Molly was rescued from being returned to slavery by a group of White men who had formed the New York Manumission Society. Yet slavery was still an accepted institution, particularly among the wealthy, in New York, and George Washington’s arrival with his own slaves showed his comfort with New York’s customs, which ultimately supported the enslavement of Black people.
Traveling with Martha Washington were her grandchildren, Eleanor Park “Nelly” Custis and Geoge Washington Parke “Wash” Custis. Ona split her time between caring for her mistress and the children during this time of transition. Everyone quickly became acclimated to the busier life of New York and the many new acquaintances who would become influential to the Washingtons in their new life.
Ona Judge was tasked with becoming intimately aware of all Martha Washington’s needs and remaining readily available without being seen. She didn’t have a wealth of experience or knowledge and had left her mother’s expertise behind at Mount Vernon, yet she had to quickly adjust to an entirely new life and to be constantly prepared for anything the Washingtons might need.
Martha Washington found her new home well-furnished, yet the space was quite cramped. In addition to their immediate family, this structure housed their secretaries, servants, slaves, personal assistants, and other staff. The accommodations at Mount Vernon allowed for Ona to be physically separated from the family in sleeping and other private matters, but this new arrangement forced close proximity with free White servants and with the family itself. Ona began to learn of a free Black population in New York because of this arrangement.
Although Martha Washington was always seen as a gracious and amiable host, often taking the lead due to her husband’s less sociable nature, Ona knew that her mistress struggled with feelings of homesickness for Mount Vernon. Ona likely looked forward to the family’s Saturday rides in the coach, which would sometimes take them away from the residence for a few hours at a time, leaving her with a brief respite from attending Martha.
Conversations about slavery were beginning to be amplified, and some religious groups fostered these meaningful conversations. Quakers in Philadelphia rejected all members who engaged in “the traffic of human souls.” Methodists began to rethink their beliefs about slavery, and Anglicans began educating and baptizing Black New Yorkers.
When Ona arrived in New York, she would have noticed the drastic shift in population dynamics. In New York, ten percent of the population was Black, and about two-thirds of those people were enslaved. Back in Virginia, the Black population was far greater. She would also have noticed that although slaves were often acquired by the wealthiest members of society, even some Whites in New York who struggled financially owned slaves. The number of slaves a family could own also differed between the two locations; in Virginia, there was plenty of room for lodging, and wealthy families therefore sometimes owned hundreds of slaves, but in New York, space only allowed for families to own a handful of slaves at most. Ona also encountered a surprising number of Black women who were enslaved for their ability to complete the difficult domestic work of city life, work that would leave their bodies broken in hot kitchens as they lifted heavy buckets of water for the families they served. Ona was, for the most part, spared the strenuous work required of most other Black female slaves. After all, she had to be prepared to accompany Martha Washington on her many social visits, often with almost no notice.
Ona Judge was nearby as the new president’s health began to suffer, first due to a painful condition diagnosed at the time as a cutaneous form of anthrax and later with a fever that became influenza and robbed Washington of much of his hearing. As Martha Washington nervously kept watch over her husband, it became one of Ona’s tasks to steady the first lady’s nerves.
After George Washington recovered, the family packed up for the summer. Ona Judge returned to Mount Vernon for a long visit, but she was no longer a young and inexperienced girl. At only sixteen years old, she had already spent time serving the most influential family in the United States in their most private and difficult moments. She had also acquired a new understanding and knowledge of the world, which included the whispers of Black freedom in the North.