The Escape of Oney Judge: Martha Washington’s Slave Finds Freedom

The Escape of Oney Judge

Emily Arnold McCully, Author and Illustrator

Farrar Straus Giroux, Historical Fiction, 2007

Suitable for: Ages 6 and Up

Themes/Topics:  Slavery, African-American, Freedom

Opening/Synopsis: “Oney!  Come here, child.”  It was Mrs. Washington!  Oney ran to her and curtsied, as the house slaves did.  Had the mistress caught her doing something wrong?  “Oney, I’ve had my eye on you,”  the great lady said.  I see a bright girl who can learn.  Tomorrow you will take up a needle and sew alongside your mother in the Mansion.”  “Oh, thank you, ma’am.” Oney cried.  “I’ll be glad to work with Mama!”  Oney knows why she was selected to work in the big house at Mt. Vernon.  It was because her father was white and she was light-skinned.   But, she’s also very bright and loved learning new things.

After the Revolutionary War ended, Oney was puzzled that liberty meant freedom for people, but not for slaves.  Mrs. Washington treated Oney like one of her own children, but she wouldn’t allow Oney to learn how to read or write.  Oney was especially close to the Washington’s daughter, Nelly.  After the general was elected president, Mrs. Washington chose Oney to be her personal maid at the first capital in New York City.  Oney studied ladies’ gowns to see how they were cut and sewn, and designed all of Mrs. Washington’s clothing and caps.  But, she never allowed Oney to earn money when she sewed for other women.

When the capital was moved to Philadelphia, Oney learned about slaves who were free.  Mrs. Washington told Oney one night that after she died, she would give Oney to her newly married granddaughter.  Oney knew the husband would sell her to  a stranger, so she began to plan her escape.  While  the Washington’s were preparing to return to Mount Vernon, Oney saw her opportunity to leave.  She ran to a white friend’s home where she hid until arrangements could be made for her escape.  She didn’t know where she would end up.  The Washington’s didn’t give up their search for Oney, even after she  married a free black slave and had a child.  They tracked Oney for years.  McCully shows how very determined this young woman was to be free.

Why I liked this book:  Little is written for children about the slaves of President George Washington and our Founding Fathers.  Emily McCully gives kids a realistic understanding of that period in our history.   She did an excellent job of researching Oney Judge Staines.  Her illustrations capture the mood of that revolutionary time.  George Washington was a good president, but he never took a public stand against slavery.  Washington hoped for its end, and he freed his own slaves upon his death.  Oney ended up in New Hampshire where she lived with her husband and three children.   I ran across a series of letters George Washington wrote trying to track Oney.  They are preserved in the Weeks Public Library and are very interesting.  She died in 1848, and her death certificate read “domestic servant.”  The Escape of Oney Judge is a 2008 Bank Street – Best Children’s Book of the Year, and a Jane Addams Children’s Book Award Winner.   Activity:  Click on Oney Judge for classroom activities.

To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.  Or click on the Perfect Picture Book Fridays  badge in the right sidebar.

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About Patricia Tiltonhttp://childrensbooksheal.wordpress.comI want "Children's Books Heal" to be a resource for parents, grandparents, teachers and school counselors. My goal is to share books on a wide range of topics that have a healing impact on children who are facing challenges in their lives. If you are looking for good books on grief, autism, visual and hearing impairments, special needs, diversity, bullying, military families and social justice issues, you've come to the right place. I also share books that encourage art, imagination and creativity. I am always searching for those special gems to share with you. If you have a suggestion, please let me know.

52 thoughts on “The Escape of Oney Judge: Martha Washington’s Slave Finds Freedom

  1. Wow, Pat. This books sounds REALLY interesting. You’re right, there very little on this topic for children. I’d be very interested to read it and see how it’s handled. I love that a book like this could be added to children’s studies of this period in history. Thanks so much for sharing.

    I added your link, but the url was too long and I had to make a tiny url, so if you check it and it looks unfamiliar that’s why :)

  2. Very interesting book and loved the review putting us in that moment. I to would love to get my hands on this one. I am pleased to see stories like this are being made available for children, hopefully there will be more. Thanks for sharing Pat.

  3. What an interesting book and story about this period of American history. You did such a thorough and fantastic job with the review. I will definitely be on the look out for this one. Thanks, Pat! :)

  4. That is definitely an intriguing story–and Washington’s letters too. I will have to put this one on my list.
    Thanks Patricia!

  5. What a strange time in history. These men that otherwise would have been traitors and criminals instead became (essentially) deified by the country that they founded. So much of the founding fathers is put up onto a pedestal as exemplary. But they were just people who owned slaves and probably did much darker stuff that never made it into the history books.

    I appreciate the story of the child that is denied an education because of the controlling world she lives in. I see that today. Here in Utah only last night, the legislature voted that sex education in classrooms will ONLY discuss abstinence. There will be no other thing taught. This includes how sex is actually done, how to use contraceptives, where to buy contraceptives, and about bisexuality, homosexuality, and other issues related to sexuality.

    I had to check my watch and see that it is in fact 2012 and not 1776. I couldn’t believe it. So basically, if parents don’t teach their kids anything in the state of Utah about sex, they won’t know anything UNLESS they find it out on their own through twitter, Facebook, or other sources. I think that this is dangerous and ignorant.

    But I’m drawing a comparison with the child in this little book your showcasing here because in the story…she isn’t allowed to read or write.

    • Michael, I love your passion. At one point in my own comments I mentioned how we put Washington and the founding fathers on a pedestal, but they lived in a time of slavery. What bothered me in my reading, was that Washington didn’t like slavery but did not take a public stand about it. He just let freed his slaves. I think kids need to know the truth, thus the reason I decided to share this book. I had the feeling as I looked further into it, that maybe it was more Mrs. Washington than the president. She was the one who refused to allow Oney to read, write and earn money — she knew she’d want to buy her own freedom. I read the president’s letters and couldn’t belive how persistant he was in tracking Oney. Turns out that if Oney had gone to the granddaughter and her husband, she would have been freed.

      Sounds like Utah is going backwards, not forwards. That is so unbelievable in this day and age. Parents should teach their kids, but many don’t. Unfortunately they learn through friends, and the media. Kids need someone outside of the family to go to for help. Thanks for sharing.

  6. We read about this story in Anthropology class last year. It’s interesting how determined Washington was to get her back. It’s sad that she had to hide out from him all of those years. Thank you for sharing this story, I had no idea there was a picture book about it!

    • Loni, Glad you read the story. I’m glad there is a picture book about the story. As I said to Michael, I felt Mrs. Washington was the one who was so adamant and the president may have been acting on behalf of his wife. She was a woman of wealth in her own right. Thanks for your comments.

  7. Michael, I am stunned by what you share about Utah’s decision on sex education. Outdated is an understatement…. and unless they ban movies and the internet, these classes are going to bear no resemblance to what students will be exposed to elsewhere. Those who dictate education, or lack thereof, have incredible power!

    Loni, it does beg the question WHY he wanted her back so badly!

    • Joanna, can’t speak for Loni, but from all I’ve read on the side, I felt it was Mrs. Washington who was relentless and the president acted on her behalf. What I found troubling is that Washington didn’t like slavery, wanted to see it end, but would not take a public stand. But, again we have to look at the time.

  8. Pat,
    I read this earlier today on my phone and couldn’t wait to write to you. What an amazing story. What questions it much bring up for kids about slavery, running, being light-skinned. I’d love to get this for my older kids. Thank you so much for recommending!

  9. Excellent choice! What a wonderful, enlightening read. I will definitely look for it. I would love to have it for our homeschool. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. *waving*

  10. I love well-researched nonfiction. The Early Republic is one of my favorite periods, and it looks like this book does a great job of explaining the complex relationships of slavery. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • Kirsten, I’m glad you liked the review. You’re right, it is a complex issue. Although Washington wanted to see the end of slavery, he wouldn’t take stand. Yet, he freed his slaves when he died. Yes, I like reading books on the Early Republic and the founding fathers.

  11. Great post! I never heard of Oney Judge before. I knew George Washington had slaves and that he was against slavery (kind of like William Penn who was a quaker who thought all men were created equal but he had three slaves). In Philadelphia (not too long ago) they discovered the foundation of the slave’s house from the “first white house” where Geroge Washington lived when Philadelphia was the USA’s capital. We visited there last year. I don’t uderstand why people who were against slavery, had slaves.

    • Wow Erik, you just told me something I didn’t know — William Penn. I believe in their hearts they knew slavery was wrong, but they lived in a time where it was a politcal hotbed. Washington did his part in freeing his own slaves, but he never took a public stand. The country was in its infancy – northern and southern states — and it would have disrupted the union, as it did eventually in the Civil War. History is fascinating. I would have loved to have seen the “slave house” from the “first white house.” Oney, however, lived with Mrs. Washington and wasn’t in a slave house. The irony of the story about Oney, is that if she had gone to be a slave for Mrs. Washington’s granddaughter, she would have been set free as were her family.

  12. Oh Pat…what a wonderful selection for PPBF. I couldn’t stop reading your review…and will try to get a copy of this book..fascinating for adults as well as children. It always amazes me how much history was left out of the history books. :)

    • Glad you liked the book Vivian! I knew the Washingtons had slaves and the president had released them upon his death — but I never knew about Oney. I found the book fascinating for both kids and adults.

  13. There is so much depth in history that is not taught in schools (I’m speaking of American schools here) and I am thrilled that there are picture books like this one that will balance out the myopic and inaccurate information being presented to children. Thank you for sharing this book and for your wonderful review.

    • Heather, thank you for your comments. We tend to put the presidents and the founding fathers on a pedestal — and they were just human living during a time of slavery. I love it when authors like McCully find these nuggets because I think kids needs to know the facts.

      • Jennifer, I have really fallen in love with a lot of the historical fiction in the past few months — covering a wide variety of subjects. You’re right, it’s a great way to teach history. Thanks for stopping.

  14. Wow! What a powerful story! I had not heard of Oney Judge until I read your review of this book. I wish I had a copy of this one to read this week for my African American history and literature unit. I will definitely have to order it.

  15. This book sounds excellent, Pat! Wow. This gives a much-needed look at a part of history that just isn’t well-enough known.

    I always know that I’ll learn something, and find yet another excellent book recommendation, when I come to your blog.

    • I really wanted to share this history. I am so happy that children have the opportunity to see that even Washington had slaves. We put people on pedestals and seem to forget that they are human. Kid need to understand this time in history. Glad you enjoyed the book.

  16. Oh wow, this looks exactly like the kind of reading material I would enjoy – a lot of back stories and details that the public was not privy to during this time. I am hoping I find this in our libraries. :)

    • Myra, you will like this story a lot. Great history about our founding fathers. I did some research and it felt like Mrs Washington was prompting her husband to pursue her slave. He freed his slave upon his death and she didn’t. Great lesson in history. – Pat

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