Discover the story of Ona Judge, enslaved by Martha Washington


The children’s book “Runaway” tells the story of Ona Judge, a young woman enslaved by President George Washington and his wife, Martha Washington. Author Ray Anthony Shepard and illustrator Keith Mallett tell the story of his escape and self-emancipation in the form of a poem, using the refrain “Why are you running, Ona Judge?” Shepard joined GBH morning edition welcomes Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel to talk about the book before Juneteenth. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

As a bonus, click the listen button above to hear GBH under the radar host Callie Crossley read an excerpt from the story.

Jeremy Siegel: The book “Runaway” is the story of Ona Judge, an African-American woman born into slavery and enslaved by Martha and George Washington, who risked her life and her comfortable life to emancipate herself by fleeing to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

So to start, Ray, tell us a bit about why you wanted to write this book.

Ray Anthony Shepard: When I retired from academic publishing about 10 years ago, I decided I wanted to start another career, writing about the black experience for children or young adults. My second book, “Runaway”, is the story of Ona Judge, it’s the story of someone who had the best job a slave could have. And that wasn’t enough. Yet that yearning for freedom, that yearning for freedom, the yearning to be your own person was greater than being a special slave to America’s most powerful couple. And she chose the difficult life of a fugitive in New Hampshire over being a privileged slave for the Washingtons.

Paris Alton: Tell us more about Ona Judge. Who is she? How was his life?

Shepherd: Ona was born in Mount Vernon in 1793 or 1794. Her father was an English indentured servant who worked at Mount Vernon for four to seven years. Her mother was a seamstress for Martha. And at 10, Ona became a full-time seamstress, an apprentice, if you will. And at 16, when George Washington moved to New York to become president of the new country, Martha took Ona to New York, and then eventually to Philadelphia when the capital moved there. And it was there, at age 23, after 23 years of enslavement, that she decided, with the help of black and white abolitionists, to escape, to exercise her own desire for freedom. Sometimes I referred to it as being stolen, despite the fact that George Washington made two attempts to abduct it and bring it back to Mount Vernon.

“The internal desire for freedom or freedom is superior to all material wealth.”

-Ray Anthony Shepard, author of “Runaway”

Headquarters : Throughout this poem you repeat the question, “Why are you running, Ona Judge?” Why is a rhetorical question like that so central to this story?

Shepherd: Well, I think if you have the most privileges – you have the best job a slave can have, “why are you running, Ona Judge?” And imagine you are a field worker and you work 12-14 hours a day under the hot sun in harsh conditions. And you see this very attractive young woman with very nice clean clothes, and well treated. And then one day, you learn that she escaped. “Why are you running, Ona Judge? »

Headquarters : We have this conversation before June 16, the day when many school children will have the day off. Why do you think a story like this is important and meaningful for children to hear? You know, understanding and embracing Juneteenth?

Shepherd: Well, there are several main ways to understand Juneteenth. First, it represents our progress as a country, striving, struggling – a struggle that still continues – to become a multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy. And we have to understand that those slaves who could have emancipated themselves. Or those who have tried and failed. Here is someone who has it all. But the inner desire for freedom or liberty is greater than any material wealth.

Click the listen button above to hear GBH under the radar host Callie Crossley read an excerpt from the story. Playback begins around 4:41 a.m.

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