This post is part two of our four-part series on this year’s finalists for the annual Children’s History Book Prize. Join us here on our History Detectives blog over the next few weeks as we interview the authors to learn more about their amazing books. Read all four finalists, then help us choose the prizewinner by voting for your favorite! Our online polls open in April, and the winning author will receive a $10,000 prize.
This week, we are chatting with authors Erica Armstrong Dunbar and Kathleen Van Cleve about Never Caught, the Story of Ona Judge. Their nonfiction book tells the real-life story of Ona Judge, an enslaved woman who belonged to President George Washington and his wife Martha and who escaped to freedom when she was 22.
From the personal way you tell her story, it seems that the life of Ona Judge made quite an impact on you. How did you first learn about Ona, and what inspired you to tell her story?
Erica Armstrong Dunbar (EAD): About 15 years ago, I was at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania looking through 18th-century Philadelphia newspapers, and I came across a runaway slave advertisement. This struck me as odd, because slavery was on its deathbed in places like Philadelphia, so I was intrigued and then shocked when I read the first sentence of the ad: “Absconded from the household of the President of the United States.” The advertisement went on to name the runaway—they called her Oney Judge. I was immediately compelled to learn more about the young enslaved woman who literally stole herself from George and Martha Washington.
Kathleen Van Cleve (KVC): I learned about Ona on the sidelines of my son’s middle-school soccer practice when I asked Erica what she was working on, and she told me about Ona Judge, the enslaved woman who fled the house of George Washington. I was instantly hooked by the subject matter—and by Erica herself, who seemed heaven-sent by Ona to tell her story.
Throughout the book, the fact that Ona is a “favored” and “personal” slave of First Lady Martha Washington is repeatedly mentioned. Why did you feel that it was so important to highlight Ona’s status as one that others might envy, even though she was a slave?
EAD: It was important for readers to understand that Ona Judge’s life was both ordinary and unique. She was a child and then a young woman who endured many of the things that other enslaved people survived: the degradation of slavery, her separation from her family, and the fear of being sold. Her position among Martha Washington’s enslaved property offered her some material advantages (more clothing, food, etc.) but it came with a heavy price.
KVC: Middle grade readers—and, really, everyone—learn pretty young about social hierarchies. It has been my experience that these kinds of dynamics occur in all social groups—and it seemed to be that this would also be the case within a group of enslaved workers. Also, presenting Ona in an authentic way pushed readers, perhaps, to see another form of enslavement that was not as common as the one modern audiences have often “seen”. In other words, besides it being the truth, it seemed important to depict the life of the enslaved people who worked inside the plantation homes, not outside in the fields.
In the book, you state plainly that George Washington condoned the use of corporal punishment to control his slaves, among other things. There are readers who may struggle to reconcile the popular image of Washington as famed military hero and first president with the far less flattering image of him as an active slave owner. How did you came to accept this duality?
EAD: Never Caught is a book about the creation of a new nation through the eyes of an enslaved woman. Yes, she knew that George Washington was a general and then the President of the United States, and that he was highly revered, but her life in bondage in his house introduced other aspects of his personality. Washington, like other “Founding Fathers” was both revolutionary and deeply flawed. He was a slaveholder, he bought and sold human beings, and he punished enslaved people in degrading and destructive ways. As a historian, it’s my job to inform and to teach no matter the subject.
KVC: First of all, the Washingtons’ treatment of their enslaved workers is documented. It seems overdue, and frankly strange, that this part of George and Martha’s life has not been depicted in the way that they themselves discussed in their correspondence. Also, this book was about Ona Judge and her actions during her lifetime, actions that stemmed from the fact that she was “owned” by the president and his wife. George Washington’s actions toward his enslaved workers were absolutely relevant in terms of telling Ona’s life accurately. And finally, I had grown tired of hearing white people from today say “well, it was different back then.” The only person arguably more famous than Washington at that time was Benjamin Franklin, at least until his death in 1790. Franklin had been a slave owner and in his newspapers, had advertised for enslaved people (as well as printing notices for fugitives). But during his lifetime, Franklin changed his mind. This was evidenced in 1789 when he argued before the U.S. Congress for the abolition of slavery, stating that it “was a debasement of human nature.” That really stuck with me—it made me realize that even “back then” there was an acknowledgment of the evil, repugnant nature of human bondage.
Why do you feel young people should read historical nonfiction?
EAD: I think all people should read nonfiction! In my opinion, it’s not enough for historians to write for older audiences—if we want to change narratives about American history we must begin with younger readers. We must give educators the tools to teach about difficult subjects—such as slavery—and to do it in ways that center the lives of women and people of color. Young readers should be informed about the past in order to help make sense of their present and hopefully shape the future for the better.
KVC: Historical nonfiction is a win-win: you not only get to read and learn about people who lived before you, but you get to understand world/national events through their lives. Readers get the spotlight turned onto Ona—a young woman whose life was, until recently, unknown. And her personal story adds dimension to a story about a founding father we all think we know. There can be no downside to this additional knowledge.
What three words would you use to describe Never Caught, the Story of Ona Judge?
EAD: Compelling, courageous, and inspiring
KVC: Brave, bold, necessary
Written by Shana Fung
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