Ona Judge Part 1
Banned Histories of Race in America
I am going to tell you about a woman named Ona Judge, but before I do, you should know about someone else. A white man. A Virginian born in the 1730s into wealth and Southern aristocracy. His inherited wealth accumulated through generations of land speculation. If you’re not familiar, land speculation was the practice of wealthy elites creating rules of ownership over indigenous land for the purpose of selling that land to white immigrants at whatever price possible.
At age 11 he inherited ten enslaved people, whom he referred to as “my negroes”. Eventually this aristocrat became the richest man in the country with hundreds of Black people enslaved on his plantation.
Of course, he thought of himself as a farmer. Personally, when I think of farmers, I think of rugged folk of the earth up before dawn, toiling in the soil, laboring with callused hands. This aristocrat wasn’t a farmer in that way. He was more like… Imagine you were a surgeon. Actually, imagine you paid a mercenary to hold people hostage and then force those hostages under penalty of rape, maim and murder to perform surgeries. Now imagine, because you’re the one who paid the mercenary, you believed that you yourself were a surgeon. That’s the way in which this aristocrat was a farmer.
Now, if you read my last post you know that enslaved Black Americans freed themselves all the time. Newspapers of that era are filled with hundreds of thousands of “runaway slave” ads placed by outraged and indignant enslavers. Though he thought of himself as one of the “good” human traffickers, this aristocrat’s plantation was not immune to Black acts of self-emancipation.
Once, during the Revolutionary War a British war ship came up the Potomac and landed by his plantation. The captain of the war ship threatened to burn the entire property to the ground if he weren’t given ample supplies. But this aristocrat was away at the time and so it was up to the plantation manager to negotiate. While panic ensued, seventeen of the Black people enslaved on the plantation made a break for the warship.
They were welcomed aboard.
In an effort to trade for and re-enslave this aristocrat’s negroes, the manager offered the captain as many supplies as he could. The captain took the supplies, but allowed the now-free Black people stay on his ship. Then they all laughed and laughed and left.
Upon hearing the news, this aristocrat wrote to the manager, “It would have been a less painful circumstance to me, to have heard, that in consequence of your non-compliance with their request, they had burnt my House, and laid the Plantation in ruins.”
It should be no surprise that when the South eventually seceded, decades after his death, this aristocrat would be a main inspiration for the formation of the Confederate States of America. Confederate President Jefferson Davis would be sworn in as the on this aristocrat’s birthday. A famous image of this aristocrat would be on the official Confederate seal and yet another of his famous portraits would appear on two different prints of the Confederate $50 bill. In practically every way, this aristocrat was the perfect example of what the Confederacy believed a man, a leader, an American should be.
After the Confederacy lost the Civil War in 1865, many of their heroes would be forgotten to time, but not this aristocrat. Lincoln’s presidential successor, Andrew Johnson, a Southern sympathizer and devout racist reversed all of Lincoln’s laws promising land and protection to Black people. And in 1869 just before he left office, Johnson saw to it that the portrait from those Confederate $50 bills would be on the new, post-war Union’s $1 bill, where it still is today.
This aristocrat’s name was George Washington and the Confederacy was the obvious and natural outcome of a country based on his example and vision.
Yeah, the cherry tree thing never happened, his “wooden” false teeth were actually human, likely from enslaved people and one of his signature pieces of legislation was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. If you’re not familiar, the act not only gave enslavers permission to cross state lines to recapture their “property” needing only “oral proof” but it also made aiding an enslaved person’s escape a federal offense.
Again, even though Washington thought of himself as one of the good human traffickers, that’s not a real thing anyone can be and so he wasn’t. Instead he was cruel and stupid. For example, he allowed dogs on his plantation—unless it was brought onto the property by a Black person. He felt that, “It is not for any good purpose Negros raise, or keep dogs; but to aid them in their night robberies; for it is astonish to see the command under which their dogs are.” And so, “If any negro presumes under any pretence (sic) whatsoever, to preserve, or bring one into the family, that he shall be severely punished and the dog hanged.”
Not “put to sleep” or “put down” or even shot. Hanged.
After George was elected president, he moved to Philadelphia, the US Capital at the time. But there was a problem. The state of Pennsylvania had passed the Gradual Abolition Act freeing any enslaved person new to the state after six months. What was George to do? The richest man in the country who’d owned at least ten people since he was 11 probably couldn’t even thread the buckle of his own shoe by himself. If his enslaved were freed in six months, surely he’d be dead in seven! So, he concocted a plan. His wife Martha would just take their enslaved out of state every six months, like pressing some antebellum reset button. Of course, Washington wanted this kept secret from the public and especially from those he kept in bondage, or as he wrote to his personal secretary, “I wish to have it accomplished under pretext that may deceive both them and the Public.”
The public didn’t find out, but those they enslaved obviously knew about the law. Especially one young woman in particular, Ona Judge… Who we’ll get to know in part two in two weeks!
See you then!