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.
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