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Runaway Slave Ona Judge Staines



Over 15 years have passed since I first stumbled upon the story of Ona Maria Judge Staines. As an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire, I learned about her from two short paragraphs within Mechal Sobel's The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth Century Virginia (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), an assigned reading for a class with Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. I couldn't believe that growing up in NH I had NEVER once heard this story mentioned in any of my history lessons. With Professor Sobel planting the seed of curiosity and Professor Ulrich enthusiastically encouraging my research, I began on a quest to learn more about this very brave, determined woman. I also wanted to know HOW she successfully defied the President since he was ostensibly the most allianced, respected, and powerful man of his day (and he knew exactly where she hid). So my research has been twofold: to unearth Ona's life and then explore the significance of this incident. Ona is an elusive character--because she carried the "dual burden" of being a woman and person of color she slips in and out of primary documents. But I like this challenge and it allows me to savor even the smallest discovery about her life.

Ona was a very strong woman of color and can be admired for outwitting her master, George Washington. Every time I tell her story people immediately are impressed with the fact that she challenged him winning the prize of liberty. Moreover, Ona is truly an inspiration: she traded a life of relative comfort for one of hardship and poverty in order to be free. Towards the end of her days when asked if she ever regretted leaving the First Family, she paused but answered "No." I think the lesson here is that there is no fulfillment without sacrifice and we all need to remain true to our convictions. Now that my Master's Thesis is done, I look forward to sharing her story with others. Though I apologize to Ona for delivering her tale more than a decade after first embarking on this journey, I am hoping that the years have better equipped me as both a writer and historian to better deliver her story.
-- EG in San Francisco, CA

Copyright (c) 2000 and Evelyn Gerson. All rights reserved.

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