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Summary

Introduction

Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge is a 2017 historical biography written by American author, historian, and lecturer Erica Armstrong Dunbar. It tells the enthralling story of Ona Judge Staines, a strong, courageous, and determined young woman who risked it all to be free. A slave in the household of America's First Family, Ona successfully managed to escape a life in bondage, and George Washington—the Revolutionary War hero, founding father, and first US president who preached for freedom—decided to use all of his political power, influence, and authority to hunt her down and bring her back.

The book presents a detailed and thoroughly researched account of Ona's life, including the circumstances of her birth and how her death affected her family and the people who knew her. Dunbar also explains how both individual states and the nation as a whole conceived of slavery in the time period. On its publication, the biography was well-received; however, some readers argue that the parts of the book which showcase how Ona felt during her enslavement and escape are largely based on assumptions and generalizations.

Plot Summary

In 1773, Oney Maria Judge—known as Ona—is born into slavery on Mount Vernon as the property of Martha and George Washington. Together with her mother, Betty, Ona becomes Martha's personal maid and favorite servant, as well as her best seamstress. In 1789, George Washington is elected president of the United States, and the Washingtons, along with their slaves and servants, move to Philadelphia (as Washington, D.C., is still under construction to become the nation's new capital). At the time, Pennsylvania requires that all slaves be freed and emancipated after six months of service, but the Washingtons avoid this law by sending their slaves back to Mount Vernon every six months—thus keeping them enslaved.

Ona lives a relatively comfortable life in Philadelphia. She stays there with the Washingtons for six years and enjoys certain privileges and freedoms that the vast majority of slaves do not have access to, such as well-made clothing, adequate meals and care, and dispensation to attend certain cultural events. During this time, Ona also begins to learn more about the abolitionist movement. When Martha decides to give Ona as a wedding gift to her granddaughter Eliza and her somewhat aggressive husband, Ona is determined to take control of both her life and her fate. Thus, on the evening of May 21, 1796, while the Washingtons peacefully eat their supper, the twenty-two-year-old Ona escapes from their mansion. With the help of a group of abolitionists, Ona gets on the next ship to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and begins her life as a free woman.

Ona has a difficult time staying anonymous, as many people know her face. The Washingtons, who seem to believe that they have treated Ona as "part of the family" despite her enslavement, fail to grasp why Ona would want to leave them and believe that she has been "tricked" by abolitionists into escaping. George does everything in his political power to find Ona and bring her back: he hires...

(The entire section is 804 words.)