George Washington & Black History Month

George Washington & Black History Month
February 22nd, George Washington’s Birthday falls during Black History Month, bitterly appropriate, as the Father of His Country owned as many as 317 slaves. As president, he signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, requiring authorities in free states and territories to allow slave-catchers to seize escaped slaves and transport them South. However, Ona Judge, a maid to Martha Washington, fled the president’s household and resisted his recovery attempts.

In 1780 the Washingtons were living in Philadelphia, then the seat of government, when Pennsylvania passed a law that freed enslaved people if they lived there for more than six months. The Washingtons gamed the system, moving their household slaves out of Pennsylvania for one or two days every six months so they legally could remain in bondage. The household was preparing to return to Virginia in 1796 when members of Philadelphia’s free Black community helped Ona Judge arrange ship passage to Portsmouth, NH, where she settled.

George Washington’s steward soon advertised for recovery of the “absconded” Ona Judge in the Philadelphia Gazette:

“Ten dollars will be paid to any person who will bring her home, if taken in the city, or on board any vessel in the harbour;—and a reasonable additional sum if apprehended at, and brought from a greater distance, and in proportion to the distance.”

A Washington family friend spotted Ms. Judge walking around Portsmouth, and passed the word to Philadelphia. Since he considered Ona Judge illegally smuggled “property,” President Washington, through Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott, contacted Portsmouth’s Collector of Customs requesting her return. The customs officer declined, replying that he feared inciting a riot among the many free Black residents of the seaport city. Washington wasn’t happy about that and let the man know it.

Ona Judge married seaman John Staines in 1797, but though he was out of office, Washington persisted. His nephew Burnwell Bassett was in Portsmouth on business in 1798, and tried to convince Mrs. Staines to return to Virginia. After she declined, Bassett informed his local host, New Hampshire Senator John Langdon, that he intended to kidnap Ona Judge Staines and bring her back South. The senator passed word to Mrs. Staines and she avoided abduction, bearing three children and living free in New Hampshire until her death in 1848.

Abolitionists interviewed Ona Judge Staines in 1845 and 1846. 


“Ona Judge,” Sarah Pierson, Center for Digital History via

“Oney Judge (ca. 1773–1848),” Brendan Wolfe, Encyclopedia Virginia

“George Washington, Slave Catcher,” Erica Armstrong Dunbar, New York Times


Short Link:

Image (“George Washington Observes Black History Month”) by Mike Licht. Download a free copy here. Creative Commons license; credit Mike Licht,

Comments are welcome if they are on-topic, substantive, concise, and not boring or obscene. Comments may be edited for clarity and length.

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One Response to “George Washington & Black History Month”

  1. Paul Mazzuca Says:

    Thanks, Mike. This is the real history! Slavery and returning escaped “property”(!), including the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 helped precipitate our bloodiest war, the civil war.

    George married the wealthiest widow in the colony, Martha, who’s former husband, a tobacco plantation owner near Williamsburg, left her with many enslaved people. Their progeny helped swell the number of enslaved humans to 317. Martha was quite angry and intent on returning Ona Judge to Mount Vernon.

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