Wednesday, June 15, 2011

George Washington and Ora Judge

To be a slave must be a hellish experience. However, if you were destined to be a slave in early 1797, it would be hard to have a better gig than Ora Judge did. She was one of George Washington’s domestic slaves in the Presidential Mansion in Philadelphia. (at that time the US capital was in Philadelphia—the White House wasn’t to be built until several years later). Ora Judge was smart enough to know that at the end of Washington’s second term in office, he and the entire household would be moving back to Mt Vernon. So Ora ran away with the help of a sympathetic sea captain and made it clear to Greenland…Greenland, New Hampshire.

When Washington first got word that one of his slaves had escaped to the Granite State, he sent a letter to the US Marshall for NH, asking for help in recovering his “property.” Interestingly enough, the Marshall wrote back, suggesting that Washington take a different tack because the people in New Hampshire, even back then, tended to take that whole “Live Free or Die” slogan very seriously. Washington then wrote a letter to Ora herself, telling her, in effect, that while he favored eventual abolition, she was setting a bad example for the rest of the slaves and would she please come on home? Ms Judge was not buying any. She stayed in NH and made a living as a seamstress.

Ironically enough, at the time Washington left office he only had another 2 years and nine months to live, and his will contained ironclad language that upon the death of his wife Martha, Mt, Vernon’s slaves would have the choice of manumission (freedom) or a chance to spend the rest of their lives at Mt Vernon being provided for from the state’s revenues.

Most people don’t realize that before the end of the Revolutionary War, Washington could be classified as a lukewarm abolitionist. He favored emancipation with compensation for slave owners. Mt Vernon’s records indicate that Washington’s estate was still making payments for elderly slaves into the early 1930s. Washington had a better retirement plan for his slaves than do a great many modern corporations.

Ora Judge spent the rest of her life in New Hampshire. She married and had two children before her husband deserted her. When she grew too old and sickly to work, the townspeople of Greenland provided for her. Shortly before her death, she gave an interview to an abolitionist newspaperman saying she had never regretted running away.

I believe the story of Ora Judge proves that the best stories are the ones you don’t find in the history books.

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