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Exploring Power, Agency, and the Black Freedom Movement with Never Caught

never-caught-the-story-of-ona-judge-9781534416178_lgNever Caught: The Story of Ona Judge, George and Martha Washington’s Courageous Slave Who Dared to Run Away

Written by Erica Armstrong Dunbar and Kathleen Van Cleve

Published by Aladdin Books, Simon and Schuster, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5344-1617-8

Grades 6 and Up

Book Review

Never Caught, the Young Readers Edition, concludes with the assertion that by 1845, Ona Maria Judge Staines, Martha Washington’s self-emancipated former personal maid, “understood that by seeking and claiming her own freedom from the grotesquerie that is slavery, she had propped open the door to freedom itself” (p. 233). How did this come to be? Historian and professor Erica Armstrong Dunbar and middle grade author Kathleen Van Cleve collaborate on the adaptation of Dunbar’s 2017 National Book Award Finalist, Never Caught: The Washingtons Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, to bring this incredible life into the classroom. After an engaging author’s note from Dunbar that invites middle grade readers and teachers into Judge’s story, an action-packed introduction details the moment of her escape the evening of May 21, 1796. A chronological narrative of Judge’s life continues, one that weaves in details about the everyday lives of enslaved men, women, and children on Washington’s Mt. Vernon estate, 18th century Philadelphia, the Washingtons’ efforts to prevent the enslaved men and women in their household from taking advantage of Pennsylvania’s Act of the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, and the intricate and intimate ways in which the personal lives of George and Martha Washington and the enslaved men and women they owned were tangled together. As Martha Washington’s personal maid, Judge, a skillful seamstress, had access to fine clothes, trips to the theater, and the chance to travel beyond Mt. Vernon. But for Judge, that was not enough. Only freedom was enough. Ideal for biography genre study as well as explorations of the Black Freedom Movement and the American Revolution, Never Caught can play many roles in middle grade language arts and social studies classrooms.

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Preparing to Teach with Never Caught. In the introduction to this book, author and historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar states that she wrote the book not just for middle grade students, but for their teachers. She wants you to read this book, to use this book and others like it in your classroom.  To learn more about the lives of free and enslaved African Americans in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and the process of doing history, listen to the podcast of Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s conversation at Mt. Vernon, her interview on WBUR radio, watch her Cooper Union address, and read some of the other sources that she mentions in her interviews, included in the Further Explorations section below. You may also want to read her original version of the book, the National Book Award finalist Never Caught: The Washington’s Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave Ona Judge.

Exploring Ona’s African American Contemporaries. While Never Caught focuses on Ona Judge, what other free and enslaved African Americans mentioned in the book do your students want to learn more about? Have students make a list, and then examine the back matter to see if they can find online source material to learn more. Provide students with a few copies of Carla Killough McClafferty’s Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Gretchen Woelfle’s Answering the Cry of Freedom: Stories of African Americans and the American Revolution, to see if they can find chapters on their subjects. Finally, draw upon some of the online resources below as well as the expertise of your school and local librarian to find other digital sources. Have students write and record podcasts about each individual, to be shared via your school’s website.

Stylistic Choices in Biography. In this “Young Readers Edition” of Never Caught, Dunbar and Van Cleve make specific stylistic choices. Some sentences and paragraphs may be the same writing as Dunbar’s original work for her adult book. Some choices were made specifically for the benefit of younger readers. What are the impacts of some of these stylistic choices on the readers of this particular biography? For example, the authors focus on Judge’s perspective throughout the book. For example, on page 49, they consider her thoughts before relocating to Philadelphia with the Washingtons in May of 1789:

“On her journey north Ona was also probably full of questions when she finally pushed back the wall of fear in her heart. Where would she sleep? What would the house be like? How different would the work be? Ona had only lived at Mt. Vernon, where there were three times as many black people as white people, even though all of them were enslaved. William Lee, George Washington’s valet, had already told them that in the North there were more white people living side by side, and it was all supposed to be very crowded. What about looking at expanses of fields? What about the joy Ona may have felt when she was running errands and paused for just a second to look at a flower or a particularly beautiful tree? What about all the people whom she knew and who knew her?”

How do the authors use language that lets the reader know that they don’t know exactly what Judge thought? What are the clues? Have students track this perspective-taking throughout the book. When does it bring Judge to life? When might it feel like fictionalization? What is the line between literary nonfiction and historical fiction? Have students try out this literary technique in their own writing of biography.  

Small Group Explorations of the Lives of 18th-19th Century African Americans. Explore the lives of free and enslaved African Americans in the 18th and early 19th via book groups. Recognizing that some students prefer nonfiction and some students prefer historical fiction, provide choices across both genres, including: Never Caught, Answering the Cry of Freedom: Stories of African Americans and the American Revolution by Gretchen Woelfe, Buried Lives by Carla Killough McClafferty, Chains, Forge, and Ashes by Laurie Halse Anderson, Sugar Changed the World by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos, and Capital Days: Michael Shiner’s Journal and the Growth of our Nation’s Capital by Tonya Bolden. As students are making their way through the books, have them document the questions they have, and have them share those questions with members of their book group as well as members of the other book groups. Bring in or Skype with a local expert on African American history to help students find answers to their questions. Allow students to respond to their reading in the format that makes the most sense for them: writing nonfiction pieces, creating a work of visual art, creating a memorial, or writing a collection of poems. Provide students with the opportunity to make contemporary connections to the Black Lives Matter movement.  

New Information About 18th Century Enslaved and Free African Americans. Historians of many different time periods have articulated the difficulties of writing about people who were unable to leave a written record of their own lives. Sometimes, historians can look at the ways that other people have written about their subjects. Examples of this in Never Caught include Dunbar’s use of Washington’s correspondence, Mt. Vernon records, and the ads he put in newspapers when trying to find Judge. While these records are extremely important, we can only learn about the subject through the perspective of someone else. After reading Never Caught, students may be interested in learning about what forensic anthropology has revealed about the lives of free and enslaved 18th and early 19th century African Americans over the past twenty years. Students can read Sally Walker’s Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland, or Louis Miner Huey’s Forgotten Bones: Uncovering a Slave Cemetery.  If you are short on time, you can explore digital resources that discuss the African American burial grounds in New York City and in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where Ona Judge lived before moving to nearby Greenland, New Hampshire. Students may also be curious about current archeological research of the slave cemetery at Washington’s Mt. Vernon, also discussed in the final chapter of Buried Lives by Carla Killough McClafferty.

Creating Adaptations. In this Young Readers Edition, the authors collaborated to revise an adult work of nonfiction into something appropriate for middle grade readers. Have your students collaborate on creating “Even Younger Readers” editions of middle grade nonfiction. In teams, have them select nonfiction chapter books of interest to them. After reading the book, have them create an adaptation of the book for elementary students. Students may want to create picture books or early chapter books. As a courtesy to the original authors, students may want to write to them (via email or intake forms on their website) to let them know of their endeavor. Be sure to explain that copyright laws prevent this from happening in the publishing industry without an author’s permission. After students complete the adaptation, have them reflect on the experience of working together. How did they maintain the original author’s voice? How did they go about making the language more accessible? What was challenging about that process?

Local History of Enslaved and Free 18th and Early 19th Century African Americans. Regardless of where you live in the United States, there is a good chance that during the 18th and early 19th centuries, there were free or enslaved African Americans. What do you and your students know about them? Partner with your school and public librarian to find middle grade and young adult secondary sources. Working with your local, regional, and state historical society, find primary and secondary source resources for your students to explore. Invite speakers in from local history museums and your local college or university. If experts are at a geographical distance, invite them in via Skype or Zoom. Visit local historic sites, if possible. Have your students create original written and visual portraits of these community ancestors, and put them on display at your local library, town or city hall, or other public place.

Critical Literacy

Representations of Ona Judge. You may have all of your students read Never Caught, individually or via read aloud. Or, you might have some students read the book and others read the chapters about Judge in Carla Killough McClafferty’s Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Gretchen Woelfle’s Answering the Cry of Freedom: Stories of African Americans and the American Revolution. Additionally, have students read Emily Arnold McCully’s picture book The Escape of Oney Judge: Martha Washington’s Slave Finds Freedom. Place students in jigsaw groups in order to compare and contrast the representations of Ona Judge. How do the book titles and chapter titles capture Ona Judge’s agency? How do they fail to do that? Where do they see consistency across language use and information? Where do the books differ from one another? Be sure to have students compare and contrast the back matter of each book. What books used the same sources? Which sources are only used by one author? What new questions do students have about Judge? Curate students’ questions and using Twitter or email, send them along to each author.

Representations of George Washington. First and foremost, Never Caught is a biography of Ona Marie Judge. However, given the fact that George and Martha Washington enslaved Ona, it is important to consider the ways in which Ona’s story gives young readers a new perspective on the Washingtons. As students read Never Caught, have them track their reactions to George Washington’s decisions and actions. With the help of a school librarian, gather a range of picture book and chapter book biographies of George Washington. When students complete Never Caught, have them review these biographies. Ask them to consider the content. What have they learned about the Washingtons in Never Caught? What information about Washington is also included in these biographies? What is excluded? Why? Why have particular representations of Washington been privileged over time? How does the omission of certain material shape readers’ perspectives on Washington as much as the inclusion of certain material? Have your students determine which biographies are the most accurate, documenting their analysis with reviews that can be shared with the school librarian and printed out and taped into the books’ inside covers for future readers to consider.

Further Explorations

Digital Resources

Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s Official Website

Kathleen DeMarco Van Cleeve

Podcast on Ona Judge with Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Mt. Vernon Historic Site

“In Search of the Slave Who Defied George Washington,” February 6, 2017, The New York Times

“Never Caught: How One of George Washington’s Slaves Escaped to Freedom,” March 14, 2017, from “Here and Now,” WBUR

Erica Armstrong Dunbar Delivers the 2018 John Jay Iselin Memorial Lecture, February 23, 2018 at Cooper Union, New York City

Ona Judge, Mt. Vernon Historic Site

Mt. Vernon Historic Site  

Slavery, Mt. Vernon Historic Site

“Lives Bound Together,” Mt. Vernon Historic Site Museum Exhibit and Online Resources

Black Heritage Trail, New Hampshire

Slavery in New York, Online Exhibit of The New York Historical Society (2011)

African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts, Online Exhibit, the Massachusetts Historical Society

Africans in America Online Exhibit, PBS, 1998

The Library of Congress Slavery Resource Guide, Updated December 2018


Anderson, L.H. (2016). Ashes. [Seeds of America]. Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers.

(2011). Forge. [Seeds of America]. Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers.

(2008). Chains.  [Seeds of America]. Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Aronson, M., Budhos, M. (2010). Sugar changed the world: A story of magic, spice, slavery, freedom, and science. Clarion Books.

Bolden, T. (2015). Capital days: Michael Shiner’s journal and the growth of our nation’s capital. Abrams Books for Young Readers.

Huey, L. M. (2016). Forgotten bones: Uncovering a slave cemetery. Millbrook Press.

McClafferty, C.K. (2018). Buried lives: The enslaved people of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Holiday House.

McCully, E. M. (2007). The escape of Oney Judge: Martha Washington’s slave finds freedom. Farrar Straus Giroux.

Walker, S. (2009). Written in bone: Buried lives of Jamestown and colonial Maryland. Carolrhoda Books.

Woelfle, G. (2016). Answering the cry for freedom: Stories of African Americans and the American Revolution. Illus by R. G. Christie. Calkins Creek.

Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.


  1. This is an excellent article and I appreciate that you included my book BURIED LIVES: THE ENSLAVED PEOPLE OF GEORGE WASHINGTON’S MOUNT VERNON in it. The links you provided are excellent to give even more information on how students can expand their knowledge.