The Road Not Taken

Ona was born into slavery. Her mother was owned by the estate of her mistress’ deceased husband. When her mistress remarried, Ona and 85 other slaves were relocated to the home of her mistress’ new husband.

Ona became an excellent seamstress by learning from her mother. When Ona was 10 years old, she was moved from the slave quarters to the main mansion to be the playmate of her mistress’ granddaughter. In a few years, she became the personal attendant to her mistress. Although she had a better life than most slaves, she was not allowed to learn to read or write.

When her mistress needed to relocate to be with her husband in Pennsylvania, Ona accompanied her. When the U.S. adopted the Gradual Abolition Act, Pennsylvania became the first state to begin the emancipation of slavery.

One of the provisions of the Act was to allow slaveholders from other states to keep their slaves for up to six months, after that the slaves were freed.

Ona and the other slaves held by her mistress were returned to their former home every six months for a few days to avoid being freed. While this was in violation of an amendment to the act, these actions were never challenged. Ona and others remained slaves.

When Ona’s mistress planned to give her to one of her other granddaughters as a wedding gift, Ona planned an escape. The granddaughter was known for her cruelty to slaves in her possession.

Ona’s escape was successful, and a reward was offered for her capture. Ona had relocated to New Hampshire where she thought she would be safe. Ona, however, was recognized and a plan was developed to recapture her. Local abolitionists stepped up and protected Ona.

Ona’s owner was indignant, but didn’t want to risk the public backlash if Ona was returned against her free will. Ona refused to return voluntarily.

When her owner, George Washington, died he directed that the 124 slaves he held be freed when his wife, Martha died. Unfortunately, Ona and the other slaves held by Martha Washington’s estate could not be freed by terms of the estate. Ona and her children remained fugitive slaves until their death.

Just imagine how the painful history of slavery in America could have changed if our first President had taken a more forceful stand against slavery. One of the defining qualities of leadership is taking forceful and just actions even when those actions are unpopular. Unfortunately actions which could have set the tone for our nation were not taken.

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“Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn’t know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty. I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington’s house while they were eating dinner.” – Ona Judge in an interview

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