Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, which is a finalist of the National Book Award, will be adapted as a film.
The book is written by historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar.
Oney “Ona” Judge, a 22-year-old slave, escaped in 1796 and was one of the slaves Washington had with him in Philadelphia (the nation’s capital at the time).
With the help of Philadelphia’s free black community, she escaped to freedom and was able to reside in New Hampshire as a fugitive slave for the rest of her life.
She notably gave post-freedom interviews to abolitionist newspapers in the mid-1800s, which is why we now know more about her than any of Washington’s Mount Vernon slaves.
Here’s the official description for Dunbar’s book: “A startling and eye-opening look into America’s First Family, Never Caught is the powerful narrative of Ona Judge, George and Martha Washington’s runaway slave who risked everything to escape the nation’s capital and reach freedom. When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation’s capital. In setting up his household he took Tobias Lear, his celebrated secretary and eight slaves, including Ona Judge, about whom little has been written. As he grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change he couldn’t get his arms around: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to circumvent the law. Every six months he sent the slaves back down south just as the clock was about to expire.
Though Ona Judge lived a life of relative comfort, the few pleasantries she was afforded were nothing compared to freedom, a glimpse of which she encountered first-hand in Philadelphia. So, when the opportunity presented itself, Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England. Yet freedom would not come without its costs. At just twenty-two-years-old, Ona became the subject of an intense manhunt led by George Washington, who used his political and personal contacts to recapture his property.”
The book was optioned by Lisa Ellis of Provenance Media and Richard Abate of 3 Arts Entertainment and they will co-produce the film.
Dunbar is a Charles and Mary Beard Professor of History at Rutgers University, specializing in African-American women’s history.
The National Book Award will be awarded next month.
Three fictional books have been written about Judge: the children’s books The Escape of Oney Judge and My Name is Oney Judge, as well as the novel Taking Liberty.