41 pages 1 hour read

Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Never Caught, the Story of Ona Judge: George and Martha Washington's Courageous Slave Who Dared to Run Away; Young Readers Edition

Nonfiction | Biography | Middle Grade | Published in 2019

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Never Caught: The Story of Ona Judge (2019) recounts the true story of Ona Judge, formerly enslaved by George and Martha Washington. Judge fled enslavement alone in 1796 to New Hampshire. Despite discovering her whereabouts, the Washingtons were unable to bring Judge back into captivity, and she lived the rest of her life as a free citizen. The book delves into the struggles faced by Black enslaved people as the abolition movement takes root and begins to divide the new nation. Co-authored by Erica Armstrong Dunbar and Kathleen Van Cleve, this is the Young Reader’s version of Armstrong Dunbar’s work of adult nonfiction by the same title, which was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award in Nonfiction and was awarded the Frederick Douglass Book Award in 2018. The book received the School Library Journal’s Best Nonfiction Book Award in 2019, was a Children’s History Book Prize finalist, and appeared on the New York Public Library’s Best Books for Kids Top 10 List.

Armstrong Dunbar is a historian and lecturer of African American history at Rutgers University. In this role, she seeks to “[tell] the stories of black women who lived, loved, struggled, worked, prayed, and fought to survive in a nation that still recognized many of them as property” (“About.” Erica Armstrong Dunbar). She serves as the National Director of the Association of Black Women Historians and was the inaugural director of the program African American history program at the library company of Philadelphia from 2011 to 2018. She holds an MA and a PhD from Columbia University. Kathleen Van Cleve is an author of books for young readers as well as a screenwriter, film producer, and instructor of creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania.

This guide references the 2019 hardcover by Simon and Schuster.

Content Warning: This guide includes references to slavery, racism, and physical violence and depictions of racist beliefs about Black people.


The narrative presents the true account of the life and escape from slavery of Ona Judge—an enslaved Black woman owned by Martha Washington since Judge’s birth. Ona’s mother, Betty, is owned by Martha’s first husband, and her ownership transfers to Martha when her husband dies. When Martha marries George Washington, Betty meets Andrew Judge—a British indentured servant who works on Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation. Because Ona’s mother is a seamstress, they work inside the estate’s mansion, rather than in the fields.

As the Revolutionary War unfolds, George becomes a commanding officer, which keeps him away from Mount Vernon. As the war ends and the colonies begin to build a nation, he accepts the nomination for president and relocates north to New York. Martha carefully selects the enslaved people who will accompany them, with a preference for those they deem will be obedient and loyal. Ona tops the list and soon becomes Martha’s personal attendant. When the nation’s leaders decide to build a new capital nearer to the south, the Washingtons reside in nearby Philadelphia.

There, the abolition movement has gained traction, and a law is put in place granting freedom to any enslaved person who has resided in the city for more than six months. To prevent their enslaved people from qualifying, the Washingtons carefully shuffle them back and forth between Philadelphia and Mount Vernon. During this time, Martha grows dependent on Ona, who not only is constantly by Martha’s side to tend to her but is also expected to regulate Martha’s moods and make life generally painless for Martha at all times. The Washingtons take pride in what they regard as their good care of their enslaved people, insisting they treat Ona as if she were their own child. In Philadelphia, however, Ona is exposed to the possibility of freedom when she interacts with free Black citizens like Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

In 1796, Martha’s granddaughter, Eliza Custis, weds an older man named Thomas Law. Martha is fearful of flighty Eliza’s ability to head the domestic aspect of a household and makes preparations to “gift” Ona to her as a wedding present. This angers Ona and is an affront to her humanity and identity as a person. In March, she begins to make plans to flee to nearby New Hampshire. On May 21, she boards a ship for New Hampshire.

There, Ona is presumably met by and taken in by free Black people—there are no records of precisely what occurs since Ona’s actions are illegal. In the time that follows, she sets out finding work and moving cautiously when in public. When the daughter of a senator recognizes her, Ona knows she is at risk of being forced back into slavery. This sets off a series of events by which George attempts to secure her return. The Washingtons are incensed by her escape, unable to comprehend that freedom could be so important to her as to desire to live in poverty. Yet, each time, Ona avoids being forced back into slavery and lives the rest of her life in freedom. Though it is a difficult life, she is able to marry and bear three children. Late in life, she is interviewed by several abolitionist newspapers. In each account, Ona stresses the importance of liberty.