Oney — My Escape From Slavery
ONEY—MY ESCAPE FROM SLAVERY is the life story of Oney Judge, Martha Washington’s ‘favorite servant.’ In Oney’s words, she shows the striking contrasts and the surprising parallels between the First Lady’s life and hers, as owner and slave. They both longed for freedom, but in different ways. Martha hated being confined to the president’s house, forced to entertain politicians and foreign diplomats. Oney hated being someone else’s property, forced to do labor and wait on her owners day and night.
After President Washington served one term as president, he wrote his farewell speech. He and Martha started packing for their retirement at Mount Vernon, but it was not meant to be. He was elected again—unanimously. He did not want to serve another term, but gave in under pressure.
Martha had no say in it whatsoever. But as she hosted her tea parties and levees, she became close friends with several forward-thinking women, such as Abigail Adams and Judith Murray, feminists of the time. Their radical ideas rubbed off on Martha—education and job training for women to be self-supporting instead of depending on husbands. By the end of George’s term, she experienced a steep character arc. She even changed her attitude toward slavery. When Oney escaped at age 20, at the end of George’s final term, Martha was very resentful: “She was more like a child to me than a servant.” The Washingtons knew that she’d escaped to Portsmouth, New Hampshire and made several attempts to recapture her. But in a sudden act of lenience, Martha gave up on Oney and let her remain free. During her husband’s presidency, Martha complained, “I am more like a state prisoner”, so perhaps she put herself in Oney’s place and realized she deserved liberty, too.
As our first First Lady, Martha Washington evolved from a grandmotherly wife and homebody to an outspoken champion of women’s rights. She provided freedom for her slaves at her death.
While living in Portsmouth, Oney married a sailor, Jack Staines, and had three children. She outlived her husband and children, and lived her remaining free life in Greenland, New Hampshire. Somewhat of a local celebrity, she lived in poverty, but the locals supported her and she took in sewing to supplement her meager income. She declared in an 1847 interview, “I am free now and choose to remain so.”
Serendipity at Work
Last May, a romance author, Brenda Novak, had her annual auction for diabetes—authors donate books, critiques, etc., and people bid on them, like Ebay. I donated one of my other books, and I also donated a free manuscript critique. An author named Piper Hughley won the crit auction, but the auction ended and I never heard from her. I thought oh, well, she doesn’t want it after all. About 3 months later, she finally wrote me and sent me her story to crit. It’s a romance about an African American girl, set in rural Georgia in the 1910s. Very moving and powerful story.
I’d been wanting to find an African American woman to go over my Oney Judge novel, but never looked for anyone, I thought of asking one of the people I went to grammar school with, but just didn’t get to it…well, one day I decided to ask Piper.
Right after I asked Piper, she wrote back and said she’ll be happy to help. Then I went on Facebook and saw that Piper just posted that her mother died that morning. So I sent her a message of condolence.
Then she wrote this back to me:
And I appreciate your kind comments about my mother. You see, I see your request as “heaven sent” for I think I told you about how my mother told me about Oney. I know that she would want me to work on anything, do anything to forward that story. So, even in the midst of a difficult time, I look forward to helping you–something I really didn’t expect after you had helped me so much. Thank you for that.
I don’t remember her telling me that her mother told her about Oney. I’ve heard so many stories about people who pass away, and send ‘signs’ etc. to their loved ones, this was just too strange to be coincidence. So I’m going to dedicate the book to her mother.