Journey to Judge: Researching Ona Judge

Lately, I have been doing some research and development for a program I am going to be in this fall: I will be portraying Ona Judge, the enslaved girl who successfully ran away from George and Martha Washington in 1796. 

Mount Vernon

The actual runaway advert. in the paper

Here's a little bit of a background on Ona Judge. Ona was born on June 1773 at Mount Vernon, Virginia to Betty (an enslaved seamstress to Martha Washington), and Andrew Judge (a welsh Indentured servant and tailor to George Washington). When Ona was old enough to start her duties she was appointed as Martha Washington's personal maid and traveled with her during her years as the 1st Lady to the north such as New York and Philadelphia. However since Philadelphia was more progressive and even had a law that stated that any enslaved person in bondage under 6 months were immediately manumitted. The Washington's were afraid of losing their slaves to this law and would send Ona and the other slaves back to Mount Vernon by the end of their 5th month to start the clock over again (still enslaving them). This went on for nearly 3 years. 

Eventually, Ona Judge learned that she was to be given to one of Martha's granddaughters as a wedding present; Ona did not like this granddaughter Elizabeth, as she was known to be very cruel to her slaves, and much preferred to work for Eleanor "Nelly" instead. Ona also realized her reality that she was really just property and not family as she grew up to be treated as and going back to Mount Vernon would seal her fate as a slave forever. So as a result, she devised a plan with the help of allies and other freed persons and absconded with her belongings in the middle of the night while the Washington family were eating dinner. 

Ona escaped by way of ship heading towards New Hampshire where she would find her freedom. However that is not the end of the story. Martha Washington felt betrayed and was frantic at the loss of Ona and sought out her retrieval by way of a runaway advertisement and to have the help of her husband and husband's secretary to get her back. After many many attempts to get Ona Judge back, Ona settled down and married a freed black man by the name of Jack Stains and had several children together. Washington died in 1802 and after his death, Martha still in grief ended the pursuit of getting Ona back. There were only 2 known interviews given by Ona Stain's about her time as the lady's maid for Martha Washington and her time as a fugitive slave. 

With Ona's biography in mind, I really had to think hard about how I wanted to portray her. I looked at several avenues. What did she look like, how old was she when she ran away, and more in depth-what were the Washington's stance on slavery (that question I felt was very important-because this tidbit helped make her decision on whether or not to runaway). I asked questions and bought and borrowed books, and worked with other Washington and Ona impersonators to get a direct understanding of who she was. But for now, I am going to work what she would have worn during her servitude. I'm going to make this entry a several part series, because this is just a very interesting and important topic that I am excited to share with you. 


Looking at the runaway advertisement of 1796 it states that Ona had several fine clothes with her. This did not exactly help me put the pieces together but it did give me an insight and a little bit of leverage. I then turned to the fashions of 1795 and 1796 and noticed that most women wore long sleeved round gowns or had dresses with the waistband creeping up to what would later become the "empire waist" for the Federal period dresses. She would have not worn clothes from 1776 or 1780 because not only would that be a fashion faux pas (wearing clothes that's 10-12 years old) but with Martha Washington being the First Lady, and you're closely and openly working for her, you'd be dressed in up to date fashion (this is the President and First Lady after all). 

So right now, I am looking at cotton fabric with calico or chintz prints that would have been fashionable during the time. I still have a long way to go until the performance in September but I think I'm going in the right direction. 


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