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Never Caught Characters

Ona Judge

Ona is the main character in Dunbar’s book, and the story centers around her life in (and eventual escape from) slavery under George Washington and his family. When Ona is born, her mother is one of Martha Washington’s slaves, which means that Ona is too. As Ona grows older, she takes on her mother’s skill at sewing and is eventually allowed to be Martha Washington’s primary attending slave. The Washingtons move their slaves out of Philadelphia at least once every six months to prevent them from earning their freedom, and Ona grows impatient with the way they cheat the system.

After finding out that she is to be given to Martha’s granddaughter (who has just married a man who is rumored to rape black women), Ona decides to leave. This act takes considerable bravery and planning on her part, especially because the Washingtons (who obviously have unfettered power, connections, and resources) are determined to get her back. Ona has to trust her friends and allies not to give her up, and though little of her story is known for certain, it is clear that avoiding capture requires Ona to be clever and strategic. She also must give up contact with her family in order to remain free. Ona eventually becomes a symbol of hope and freedom to those who remain in slavery.

George Washington

George Washington is well-known as a military general in the Revolutionary War and the first president of the United States of America. After he becomes president, he has to move from Mount Vernon, where he holds a plantation, to Philadelphia. Because of Pennsylvania’s law that people can only be kept enslaved for six months before they are freed, George Washington moves his slaves back to the South when their time in slavery is about to expire. He then brings them back to Philadelphia in order to keep them under his control. Ona Judge is one of those slaves.

After Ona escapes, Washington is relentless in his pursuit; he spends years and many resources in his attempts to recapture her. Given the heroic image Americans are often provided—of Washington as a visionary president, general, and patriot—it can be surprising to see this side of him. Dunbar avoids speculation in her work, so many of his motives remain uncertain, but Washington's dogged search for Ona shows a new facet of his character: one that focuses on his role not just as a president and military leader but also as a man who enslaved hundreds of people.

Martha Washington

Martha Washington is described as being intelligent, but Dunbar says that she is a very different person in public than she is when Ona is the only person around. Martha’s first husband and several of her children had died, and the responsibilities of being the president’s wife take a toll on her. In private, she behaves inconsistently, seeming at some times relaxed and at others high-strung and easily angered. Ona learns to cope with this by keeping a cool head around Martha no matter what.

Ona’s escape has a very negative impact on Martha, particularly in the fact that it is publicized, which Martha finds embarrassing. Martha seems to truly believe she has treated Ona well—as a part of the...

(The entire section is 829 words.)