As part of the Head of School's Distinguished Speaker Series, Germantown Academy hosted National Book Award finalist and Frederick Douglass Book Prize-winning author Erica Armstrong Dunbar on Tuesday, February 5. Ms. Dunbar, who is currently the Charles and Mary Beard Professor of History at Rutgers University and also serves as the Director of the Program in African American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia, is the author of Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.
From Professor Dunbar's website:
A startling and eye-opening look into America's First Family, Never Caught is the powerful narrative of Ona Judge, George and Martha Washington's runaway slave who risked it all to escape the nation's capital and reach freedom.
When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left behind his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in New York and then Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation's capital. In setting up his household he took Tobias Lear, his celebrated secretary, and nine slaves, including Ona Judge, about which little has been written. As he grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change he couldn't get his arms around: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to circumvent the law. Every six months he sent the slaves back down south or out of the state, just as the clock was about to expire.
Though Ona Judge lived a life of relative comfort, the few pleasantries she was afforded were nothing compared to freedom, a glimpse of which she encountered first-hand in Philadelphia. So, when the opportunity presented itself one spring day in Philadelphia, Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England. Yet freedom would not come without its costs.
At just twenty-two-years-old, Ona became the subject of an intense manhunt led by George Washington, who used his political and personal contacts to recapture his property.
In addition to a well-attended public presentation of her book, Professor Dunbar also spent the day in discussion with GA students and faculty about the complex topics unearthed in her research. From assemblies to classroom visits to small group discussions, Professor Dunbar engaged the community on questions of race and slavery within the context of our nation's founding. For a school with historical ties to the American Revolution War Era, Never Caught has been a galvanizing book for the GA community, providing a catalyst for in-depth dialogue about one of the most important topics of our day.
In Middle School, all seventh graders are reading the Young Readers edition of Never Caught as part of their history class curriculum. According to Professor Dunbar, they are the first group of students to read this version of the book.
"We ended up having the entire seventh grade have a question-and-answer with Professor Dunbar," said Middle School History Teacher Bayard Templeton. "We did this since all of our classes have been reading the newly-released Young Readers edition of Never Caught. With the book coming out at the beginning of January, this was a last minute-change to our curriculum that Head of Middle School Jonas Jeswald and Head of School Rich Schellhas enthusiastically supported. Students have been reading the book for homework over the last two weeks. In class, we have alternated between discussing parts of the book and continuing with our study of the United States government, drawing connections between the two when possible. In discussions, many students have reported feeling like the story is compelling and draws attention to a part of American history with which they may not have been as familiar."
Mr. Templeton, along with fellow Middle School History Teachers Jim Eichsteadt and Alli Guenthner had students submit questions to them for Professor Dunbar.
"We chose about a dozen students to share their questions, some of which centered on how Professor Dunbar researched the book, others of which were about specific parts of the book and Ona Judge's life that students wanted to know more about," noted Mr. Templeton.
In the Upper School, Professor Dunbar also met with students in various history classes. In Bob Moyer's class, the focus was on the famous Washington family painting by Edward Savage.
"We discussed the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Washington family painting by Edward Savage that is part of our archives, and the construction of the myth of Washington and the role we play in that as a school," said Upper . School History Teacher Bob Moyer.
In Judy Krouse's Civil War History Class, Professor Dunbar talked about the writing process and the fugitive slave ad that she discovered that led her on a multi-year journey researching Ona Judge's life. She also discussed the positive reaction to the book and her decision to co-write a Young Readers version.
"I expected maybe people would read it," said Professor Dunbar. "But no writer writes thinking they will be nominated for an award. They are writing for readers and the story."