Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1482
Chapter 6: Life in Philadelphia
After seeing an especially entertaining production of The Beaux’ Stratagem, the Washingtons gave some of their slaves, including Ona Judge, tickets to see the performance themselves. Ona was also allowed to attend the circus and occasionally to see tumblers perform.
Because of her proximity to the first lady, Ona Judge grew familiar with the social elite and the culture associated with upper-class society. She would not have attempted to socialize directly with Martha Washington’s friends, but she became increasingly associated with their slaves and servants and therefore became known among both Whites and Blacks in Philadelphia.
Yet even this status had its limits. Ona had to be careful not to interact too closely with free Blacks in Philadelphia. If she was seen fraternizing with people who were associated with groups such as the Free African Society, whose goal was to help fugitive slaves, she would risk the Washingtons’ trust. As a minor, Ona had to balance her desire for a free life with the uncertainty that awaited her if she left the realm of the Washingtons’ influence. She could predict neither who would be granted ownership of her until she reached adulthood nor her physical safety under unknown circumstances. The Washingtons at least provided a sense of safety for Ona, and for a while, this made her decide to stay with them.
Certainly Ona also noticed that male slaves were emancipated much more quickly than their female counterparts. The domestic services which women provided were not easily replaced, leading many slave owners to declare them indentured servants rather than slaves. They were therefore able to hold on to these women for a much longer period of time. Women of any race who lived during this era faced nearly impossible prospects for employment beyond cleaning and washing clothes, but for women of African descent, the opportunities were even more dire. Some Black women became rag pickers, collecting old clothes and bits of cloth; after cleaning them, they resold them for a meager profit, just enough to avoid starvation. Ona was witness to the poverty around her and realized that freedom was not an easy endeavor. There were incredible new opportunities emerging for free Blacks in Philadelphia—including new churches, schools, and social societies—but Ona would have to examine these changes from afar.
In 1791, several of the slaves who had been her constant companions in Philadelphia suddenly found themselves sent back to Mount Vernon, either due to injury or for supposedly improper service. Later, in 1793, yellow fever struck the city; it was a public health crisis which the medical science of the time could not adequately explain. The disease, actually transmitted by mosquitoes, was believed to be caused by “foul air,” so many residents, including the Washingtons, fled Philadelphia.
Black community leaders Richard Allen and Absalom Jones saw this turmoil as a chance to improve race relations with their White neighbors. After being assured that Blacks could not contract the disease, they recruited large numbers of Black Philadelphians to assist with the sickly White populace; these volunteers became both nurses and gravediggers. Allen and Jones wished to prove that Black men and women were good citizens and to dispel racist myths that Blacks were lazy and impudent members of society. As it turned out, Blacks were not immune to yellow fever and died in the same proportions that Whites did. Black deaths accounted for ten percent of all yellow fever deaths after the disease had run its course, and then came further insult. Whites began accusing their Black assistants of exploiting them during their illnesses,...
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claiming they had been victimized and robbed.
The return of cooler temperatures in the fall killed the mosquitoes that spread the disease, so the Washingtons returned to Philadelphia. Upon their return, Ona noticed both the loss of five thousand citizens and the increased racial discord in the city. The struggles Blacks had faced while she was gone showed Ona that freedom was not a path to an easy life. And then came devastating personal news.
Austin, Ona’s brother who shared in her travels to New York and Philadelphia, suffered a severe accident while crossing a river. He died from his injuries, leaving behind a wife and five children at Mount Vernon. The news shocked and grieved Ona, but it proved too great a burden for their mother to bear. Within a month, Betty grew increasingly ill and died. Ona Judge, now in her early twenties, was no longer bound to Mount Vernon by family ties and likely realized the North had become her home.
Chapter 7: The Wedding
Martha Washington had endured the loss of her first husband and then of all of her four children. Two of her children, Daniel and Frances, died before the age of five. Patsy’s seizure at age seventeen left Martha with only one living child, John. He became ill and died at age twenty-seven, leaving four children of his own behind. Two of those children, Nelly and Washy, lived with the Washingtons; their older siblings, Eliza and Martha (called Patsy by friends), remained with their mother. Martha Washington deeply loved all of her grandchildren, particularly because of the great losses she had endured.
The Washingtons were shocked when nineteen-year-old Elizabeth Parke Custis (called Eliza by adult friends and Betsey by family) confided that she had become involved with a man twenty years her senior who also had biracial children he had conceived in India. To further complicate matters, the man held British citizenship, which was no small matter to the new president of the United States. Eliza asked her grandparents to carefully consider her request to marry Thomas Law and not to rush to judgment.
This sparked a flurry of gossip in their social circles, with even George Washington’s vice president and ally John Adams writing home to his wife about the scandal. Although Martha Washington navigated the tension with outer social ease, her private life was quite different, as she grew increasingly concerned for her granddaughter. Ona Judge would have worked to carefully attend to Martha’s emotional needs during this time.
When Thomas Law wrote to George Washington proclaiming his intention to marry Eliza, George first wrote to his step-granddaughter. He told her that if she was certain of her feelings for Law and that she could not be happy without him, he would give them his blessing. His reply to Law was not as cordial as his letter to Eliza, however, and he openly suggested that the couple remain in the United States instead of residing in England or elsewhere.
This news coincided with George Washington’s decision not to seek a third term as president, although he was under great pressure to do so. This meant that the Washingtons and their slaves in Philadelphia would soon begin preparing for a return to Mount Vernon. Ona had no real desire to return to Mount Vernon and no particular attachment to the residence after living for so long in Philadelphia. Her most pressing concerns about leaving and seeking her own freedom certainly involved the likelihood that she would never see her extended family again. She was likely also worried about her sister Betty, whom George Washington called “lazy” and “impudent.” However, if she returned to her family, she faced a change in duties, as she would no longer be called upon to assist the president’s wife. She likely would have faced physical labor and would not have had the occasional time to herself that she enjoyed in Philadelphia when the Washingtons entertained guests at home.
In the end, Ona Judge’s decision appeared to be made for her by Martha Washington: because Eliza knew nothing about establishing or running a household of her own, Martha would transfer ownership of Ona to Eliza so that Ona could assist her.
Ona Judge saw with sudden clarity that she was not as valuable to Martha Washington as she might have believed. To the Washingtons, she was simply property that the family could move about as they saw fit; Ona had no voice in her own destiny. Eliza was known for having a “stormy reputation,” and Ona realized that she would likely endure conflicts with her. Additionally, she saw with clarity that Thomas Law openly slept with women of color and didn’t care about the gossip that the children from those relationships might give rise to. Ona knew that living in close proximity with this man could make her a victim of his unwanted sexual advances, which was a widespread and entirely reasonable fear among enslaved women.
There were too many uncertain variables in this move to the newlyweds’ household, and Ona Judge made the decision to run. Having seen the freedom around her in Philadelphia and experienced it in small ways herself, Ona decided to change the future that was being written for her.