Though she spent the greater part of her life in my home state of New Hampshire, Ona Judge lived literally in the shadow the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia – without one morsel of the freedom it has come to represent.
Now the Liberty Bell itself has a history full of irony. When it first arrived from where it had been cast in London and was hung outside the Pennsylvania State House to test its sound, it cracked at the stroke of its own clapper, a rather inauspicious sign. Tradition maintains that it was tolled in 1774 to declare the inauguration of the First Continental Congress. Abolitionist newspaperman William Lloyd Garrison coined the name “Liberty Bell” to describe it when it was used as a symbol in an 1839 pamphlet produced by the American Anti-Slavery Society.
Although the bell had been recast after it cracked, a second crack occurred that required it to be repaired yet again in 1846. Perhaps days later, the bell was rung for several hours in honor of George Washington’s birthday. It was during that time that a crack advanced from the top of the repaired crack to the crown, and the bell was rendered unusable.
A venerable part of the nation’s history all the same, the bell was removed from its tower in 1852 and displayed to the public in a variety of locations, the most recent, and presumably final, the Liberty Bell Center pavilion in Philadelphia, just south of where George Washington had lived in the 1790s. At that time, this home was the equivalent of the White House, which had yet to be built in what was then the wilderness of the future District of Columbia.
During the design and construction of the bell’s display pavilion, planners discovered that the site was adjacent to the living quarters of black people who’d been enslaved – ones owned by the “Father of Our Country.” And, it turned out, visitors to the Liberty Bell were accessing the bell by walking directly over the quarters where the home’s slaves had been housed.
Among those enslaved servants was Ona Judge, hopefully a figure who will one day have name-recognition for every American school child, well beyond the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Hers is a tale of how a black woman challenged and bested her “master,” who also happened to be the leader of the nation.
“Born into” the slave-holdings of Martha Washington, Ona had become a famous face herself, one often seen at the many grand events Martha hosted, and which Ona’s arduous workdays made possible. At the age of 15, Ona had already had one wrenching parting from all of those she knew and loved when she was one of seven slaves to leave Mount Vernon and accompany the First Family to its new Philadelphia executive residence.
Small surprise that, when Martha announced her intention a few years later to bestow Ona as a wedding gift upon her granddaughter, Ona, whose trustworthiness and good service facilitated her coming and going freely in Philadelphia, simply walked out the front door while the family was eating dinner. Uneventful as it was, this escape would have brought severe penalties had she been caught.
Heaven knows what pluck and resourcefulness helped her get all the way to Portsmouth, NH, where she was promptly recognized on the street by the daughter of Senator John Langdon, as the Langdons knew the Washingtons very well. Ironically, although in covert ways, it would be Langdon who would help Ona keep her freedom by ensuring she had sufficient warning whenever Washington’s appointed agents came to find her.
Ona made a life for herself as a free black, even as she knew that slave-hunters could appear at any time to seize her, along with any children she might have, and she’d have no recourse at all. “Mistress of her needle,” as Washington himself had called her, she found a work as a seamstress and married a Black sailor, Jack Staines, and the couple had three children.
Some years later, after his retirement from the Presidency, Washington – no doubt at the chiding insistence of an outraged Martha, said to be the stronger personality of the two – dispatched yet another hunter, his nephew, Burwell Bassett, Jr., to try and fetch Ona back. One again, John Langdon’s intervention helped warn her in advance.
Although Ona died a ward of the state in her own home in 1848, having outlived her children, the citizens in her small community of Greenland, NH, cared about her enough to help keep her stocked with essentials. Her life as a free woman was unquestionably more difficult, in terms of material comforts than it would have been had she stayed with the Washingtons.
More than once, she was asked how she could relinquish the “silks and satins” of that “fine way of life” she had known for inevitable poverty. Her reply: “I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means.”
It seems it was richness in spirit she was after, and the real freedom the Liberty Bell had come to symbolize: the ability to read and learn, to worship as she chose; and to spend the hours of her time as she, herself, determined to.
Adapted from Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details: http://www.amazon.com/Life-First-Sight-Finding-Details-ebook/dp/B00B5MR9B0/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid=