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Dr. Dunbar Details the life of a President’s Fugitive Slave to Salisbury Students


Staff Writer

Anyone can be a hero.

That was the message from Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Associate Professor of Black American Studies and History at University of Delaware, who traveled to Salisbury University Wednesday to lecture about her newest book.

The event was part of SU’s celebration of African American history month and was sponsored by The Office of Multicultural Student Services, the Department of History and the Fulton Public Humanities Initiative.

Dunbar’s book, “Never Caught: Ona Judge Staines, The President’s Runaway Slave Woman,” focuses on the life of one of President George Washington’s slaves, Ona Judge, who was bequeathed to a relative and chose to run away.

Her location was known, but as the title indicates she was never caught.

Dunbar believes that Judge is an American hero and decided to write and speak about her for a distinct reason. This reason, she said, is that she wants people to learn about “Regular Folks,” and she how inspiring everyday people can be.

Additionally, she describes the importance of celebrating African American history month: “February forces us all to remember the contribution and centrality of black lives across American history,” she said.

The book is slated to be released next January. This is Dunbar’s second published book, and she has also been named first director of the program of African American history at the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Dunbar began her lecture by asking students what came to mind when she said George Washington. The common answers were president, founding father and dentures. However, although it is well known that Washington was a slave owner, this aspect was discussed little.

Dunbar sought to shed light on a less heralded figure in American history. Ona Judge was a body slave to Martha Washington. She was around during intimate moments, and had moved with the Washington’s from Mt. Vernon to New York to Philadelphia.

Her life was filled with uncertainty. In February of 1796, she was given away to one of Martha Washington’s granddaughters, Eliza Custis.

Custis was largely unpopular and mercurial, and this was the breaking point for Judge. She ran away that month, and escaped to Portsmouth New Hampshire.

New Hampshire had a very small African American population, and was generally opposed to slavery. This created a unique situation.

Although Judge’s location was well known, it was difficult for Washington to bring her back. There were several attempts to capture Judge, but none were successful. Dunbar delves deeper into this aspect her new novel, and further analyzes reasons the reasons that Judge was never caught.

Overall, the main point that Dr. Dunbar said she wanted to get across was that even “ordinary” people can be heroes.

Dunbar said that Judge’s actions were truly “remarkable and incredible.” The fact that Judge has overall low name recognition inspired Dunbar to write the book.

She also explained that the narrative of “happy slaves” still exists. She cited a recently recalled scholastic children’s book that depicted some of George Washington’s slaves as jovial. Dunbar disputed this notion, and provided information to prove the inaccuracy of that depiction.

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