62 pages 2 hours read

Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

In Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Erica Armstrong Dunbar traces the life of enslaved woman Ona Judge from shortly before her birth to just after her death. This tracing is bookended by details about the circumstances into which Judge was born and the effect her life had on her family after her passing. To highlight additional historical aspects of the narrative, Dunbar includes an Author’s Note explaining how she became acquainted with Judge’s story, a brief Foreword that provides an overview of Judge’s life, and the text of two interviews given by Judge towards the end of her life. A National Book Award Finalist, Never Caught was originally published in 2017.

Plot Summary

Dunbar first sets the scene for Judge’s arrival, describing the lives of enslaved individuals at Mount Vernon (particularly Judge’s mother, Betty) and introducing George and Martha Washington. For much of the book, Judge’s story is the Washingtons’ story: Judge’s life is dictated completely by their rules, personalities, and movements. Judge becomes enslaved to Martha, serving her every whim and subject to her tempestuous behavior.

As George becomes president and the family (and those individuals whom the family enslaved) move first to New York and then to Philadelphia, Dunbar weaves in additional stories about Judge’s family members, other “prized” enslaved individuals of the Washington family, and friends of the Washingtons, creating a picture of life for an enslaved person in the late 1700s and the pitfalls they navigated under America’s early leadership. Dunbar also explains how the Washingtons engaged in a complicated shuffling process of moving their enslaved individuals around every six months to avoid the law in Philadelphia that would emancipate said enslaved individuals after six months’ residence.

As Judge grows older and becomes more aware of her situation, Dunbar includes descriptions of free Blacks in Philadelphia and a growing abolitionist movement in the North that ultimately helps persuade Judge to run away. Judge’s true breaking point is the discovery that Martha plans to give Judge as a wedding gift to her temperamental granddaughter, Eliza. The prospect of belonging to Eliza–and the potential for sexual violence from Eliza’s husband–is more than Judge can tolerate.

Judge escapes from the Washingtons in 1796, ultimately taking a boat to Portsmouth, New Hampshire and passing as a free Black woman. She finds work as a domestic and attempts to forge a new life, though she remains haunted by the possibility of being caught and returned to Mount Vernon. She has a near-miss moment with a personal friend of the Washingtons, which alerts them to her presence in New Hampshire. The Washingtons make multiple attempts to recover Judge and interfere with her life as a free Black woman, including sending multiple emissaries to convince her by means of coercion or threats.

In between these attempts, Judge marries a free Black man and becomes pregnant, giving birth to a daughter in 1799. Shortly after, George Washington dies, followed several years later by Martha, yet still Judge technically belongs to Martha’s first husband’s estate. She becomes a symbol of Black freedom and dies around forty-five years after Martha, remaining a free woman until her death. Dunbar wraps up Judge’s story by explaining what happened to Judge’s younger sister; to Martha’s granddaughter to whom Judge’s sister was intended as a gift; and the belief that despite hardship, Judge freedom had been worth it.