It’s always puzzled me why Black History Month (or is it African American History Month? Views differ…) is observed in February. It seems to me it would have been more fitting had it been observed in January, since that’s when the birthday of the nation’s foremost African American civil rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., celebrated his birthday and when the nation celebrates it to this day.
But February it is, and each year in my “Reflections” column for Shaw Media, Inc., I try to mark the observance with explaining how African Americans affected local history. Which is a surprise to many because that little Kendall County once had a thriving population of black farm families, whose descendants still live in the Fox Valley is one of the area’s little-known facts.
This year, I decided to tell the story of two women who were given away as wedding presents, one local and one not. It strains credulity these days to consider there was a time in this country when one person not only owned another, but could simply give them away as gifts. But the custom was common for the first two centuries of the European settlement of North America. But nevertheless it’s true.
The plight of these two women, one of whom was owned by George Washington, President of the United States, and the other owned and then freed by an eventual resident of Kendall County, came to my attention through the reading list for my daily exercise program.
Exercise is boring, so I try to choose books that are lively reads to make my morning stint on the NuStep machine go faster, and also try to mix fiction with non-fiction. Having just finished Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (highly recommended), I decided to try a book I stumbled across on Amazon with the intriguing title of Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.
And it proved as thought-provoking as I suspected it would. In her biography of Judge, Erica Armstrong Dunbar relates the story of Judge’s early life as a slave at Mount Vernon, how her life changed when George Washington was elected President, and her eventual escape after Martha Washington decided to convert Judge into a wedding present for her granddaughter. After all, Judge was just one more of the Washington family’s possessions.
And the book got me thinking about the similarities between Ona Judge and another enslaved black woman, Ann Lewis, who had also been a wedding present, but who was freed by her owners, moved with them to Kendall County, and started a family that still lives in the area.
Judge began planning her escape from slavery in the spring of 1796, when Martha Custis Washington notified the slave girl that she was being given Washington’s granddaughter as a wedding present.
Judge had been born at the Washingtons’ plantation, Mount Vernon, about 1776, from the union of her enslaved mother, Betty, and her white father, Andrew Judge, a Mount Vernon tailor. Ona was trained as a seamstress and body servant by her mother, and when the Washingtons left Mount Vernon for Philadelphia, New York, and Philadelphia again after George Washington’s election as President, she was taken along to serve the First Lady.
Things went well for the slaves who accompanied the President and Mrs. Washington until the U.S. seat of government was moved back to Philadelphia in 1790, where it was to remain until the new capital at Washington City in what was to be called the District of Columbia was built. Before the end of the Revolution, Pennsylvania had passed the Gradual Emancipation Act, a provision of which mandated that if someone brought slaves into the state, they would automatically be freed after six months’ residence. The act was amended in 1788 to close loopholes. Acting on the advice of U.S. Attorney General Edmund Randolph, Washington circumvented the law by sending slaves who were nearing their six months’ anniversary in Philadelphia home to Virginia for a few weeks, before bringing them back again to restart freedom’s clock.
That was undoubtedly annoying enough for the Washingtons’ slaves who understood perfectly well what George and Martha were doing. But when Martha informed Ona Judge she was to be a wedding gift for Martha’s mercurial granddaughter, Elizabeth Parke Custis, that was apparently too much. Ona’s plans included gradually taking most of her few possessions to the home of a free black family in Philadelphia and then slipping out of the household in May 1796 while the Washingtons ate dinner.
She retrieved her possessions and then boarded the sloop Nancy, whose destination was Portsmouth, New Hampshire, making good her escape. In Portsmouth, she found work, got married, and had children with her husband, Jack Staines, a free black seaman, all while fending off slave catchers dispatched over the next several years by the angry Washington family. Meanwhile, Ona learned to read and write—something that was against the law for black people in Virginia. She also became a Christian—it turned out the Washingtons also provided no religious training or services for their enslaved workers.
While he could have engaged the legal system set up under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 that he himself had signed into law to legally retrieve Judge, the intensely private Washington wished his slave catching activities to remain discrete. Unfortunately for him, they also remained ineffective, as Judge was determined never to return to enslavement. She remained classified as an escaped slave the rest of her life, as did her three children. Even though they were born in a free state and their father was a free black man, Virginia law insisted since they were the children of an enslaved mother, Ona’s three children, too, were enslaved and were the rightful property of Martha Washington’s heirs.
Ona Judge Staines died in 1848, having outlived her husband and all three of her children. But she managed to snatch a bit of immortality when she gave interviews to abolitionist publications, the only first person accounts by one of the Washingtons’ slaves ever published. She’s also been the subject of a number of books, the most recent being Never Caught.
Ann Lewis, on the other hand, was literally ripped from her family at the age of seven years when her owner, John Gay, a wealthy planter in Woodford County, Kentucky, decided to present the child as a wedding gift to his daughter, Elizabeth, upon her 1842 marriage to Elijah Hopkins. The Hopkins settled with Elijah’s family just across the Ohio River in Ohio. And while Ann started out as a slave, in accord with Ohio law, she was freed the minute she set foot on Ohio real estate. Although free, she continued to live with Hopkins family, helping the couple raise their several children.
When the Hopkins family moved to Illinois in 1857, they bought land along modern Wolf’s Crossing Road just east of today’s Route 71–Route 34 intersection. There the Hopkins family farmed, raised prize-winning horses, and operated their limestone quarries which can still be seen on either side of the road.
After helping the Hopkins raise their children, Ann Lewis decided to start her own, marrying local farmhand Henry Hilliard. As a measure of the high regard in which the Hopkins family held Ann, the wedding was conducted in the Hopkins home. The couple farmed along Wolf’s Crossing Road for some years before moving to Aurora, where they raised their three children and helped establish Aurora’s Colored Baptist Church (now Main Baptist Church) on East Galena Boulevard. She maintained a lifelong attachment to the Hopkins family as well. Ann Lewis Hilliard died at the home of her son, William, on Farnsworth Avenue in Aurora at the age of 106 after an incredible, long life. She is buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery.
Two enslaved females who were given as wedding gifts, something that led to freedom for one and that led to a life of worry about losing the freedom she seized for herself and her children for the other. “In nothing was slavery so savage and relentless as in its attempted destruction of the family instincts of the Negro race in America,” wrote educator and political and women’s rights activist Fannie Barrier Williams. But Ann Lewis and Oney Judge figured out how to defy that very effort. Something to think about during this year’s Black History Month.