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Taking Liberty: The Story of Oney Judge, George Washington's Runaway Slave

Taking Liberty: The Story of Oney Judge, George Washington's Runaway Slave

4.4 13
by Ann Rinaldi

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When I was four and my daddy left, I cried, but I understood. He had become part of the Gone.

Oney Judge is a slave. But on the plantation of Mount Vernon, the beautiful home of George and Martha Washington, she is not called a slave. She is referred to as a servant, and a house servant at that — a position of influence and respect. When she rises to


When I was four and my daddy left, I cried, but I understood. He had become part of the Gone.

Oney Judge is a slave. But on the plantation of Mount Vernon, the beautiful home of George and Martha Washington, she is not called a slave. She is referred to as a servant, and a house servant at that — a position of influence and respect. When she rises to the position of personal servant to Martha Washington, her status among the household staff — black or white — is second to none. She is Lady Washington's closest confidante and for all intents and purposes, a member of the family — or so she thinks.
Slowly, Oney's perception of her life with the Washingtons begins to crack as she realizes the truth: No matter what it's called, it's still slavery and she's still a slave.
Oney must make a choice. Does she stay where she is — comfortable, with this family that has loved her and nourished her and owned her since the day she was born? Or does she take her liberty — her life — into her own hands, and like her father, become one of the Gone?
Told with immense power and compassion, Taking Liberty is the extraordinary true story of one young woman's struggle to take what is rightfully hers.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this swiftly paced historical novel, Rinaldi (Girl in Blue) chronicles the life of Oney Judge, favorite "servant (they were never called slaves)" to Lady Martha Washington. By Oney's own admission in the prologue, as Lady Washington's "pet," she enjoyed "a life of comparative ease and even luxury." Oney surreptitiously learns to read (and though this violates the law, Lady Washington keeps her secret), wears fine clothes and accompanies the General's family to New York and Philadelphia. Rinaldi seamlessly weaves history and strong characters, from the mansion house to the servants' quarters, to offer a balanced portrait of their complex and contradictory interactions. The author demonstrates why Oney is reluctant to leave her "home" and "family." A free black woman Oney befriends in Philadelphia forewarns, "That's the worst way to be, you know, treated like a daughter.... It's another way of binding you to them." Rinaldi so persuasively portrays Oney's loyalty that when she realizes what the family truly thinks of her, readers may well feel as betrayed as Oney herself does. Some readers will be concerned that Rinaldi continues the use of the historically accurate term "Negroes" in her author's note, but the excerpts included from primary source material, including George Washington's writings, further illuminate the conflicts of the period. This memorable heroine and novel offer a thought-provoking exploration of the courage needed to grasp freedom. Ages 12-up. (Nov.)
Oney Judge grew up as a slave on the Mount Vernon plantation of George Washington, spending most of her life there as the personal servant of his wife, Martha. This historical novel spans Oney's childhood during the Revolutionary War to her young adulthood when she runs away. Oney grows up hearing her mother urge her to forget the finery and the favors of being a house slave, and to run at the first opportunity. Feeling like a member of the family, Oney is discouraged from running by the fact that even when Martha learns that she can read and write, she is not punished. In addition, Oney overhears then President Washington say that he will free all his slaves upon his death. Oney travels with the family back and forth from Mount Vernon to Philadelphia, where she survives the Yellow Fever epidemic and witnesses the personal triumph and tragedy of the family. In Philadelphia, she meets a free African American woman, who alerts her to the underground network that helps slaves get to Canada to escape the newly enacted Fugitive Slave Act. Oney still does not run until she learns that she is to be a gift to Washington's eldest daughter Eliza upon her marriage. Then she realizes that she is merely property, and the novel ends with her bid for freedom. Rinaldi concludes the narrative with a lengthy historical note on the real Oney Judge. This excellent novel depicts the political conflicts of the new nation and a compelling character in Oney. Her hesitancy to run, her fear of defiance, and what finally compels her to act create a convincing plot upon which to carry the historical background. VOYA CODES: 4Q 4P J S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Broad general YA appeal; JuniorHigh, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2002, Simon & Schuster, 272p,
— Hillary Theyer
School Library Journal
Gr 7 Up-Oney Judge was born into servitude, as a slave owned by George and Martha Washington. In spite of her favored status as personal servant to her mistress, Oney chose to run away and, at 24, successfully fled to Portsmouth, NH. This often-riveting novel opens as an elderly Oney is interviewed in 1842 by a reporter. She begins recalling her story as a three-year-old in 1775, her later talent as a highly skilled seamstress, and her place as a well-liked, well-treated companion to Mrs. Washington. Gradually, she recognizes that freedom is more important than security and comfort. Oney's narrative allows her own development to be revealed gradually, to let readers view the emerging nation and other characters from her almost naive point of view. The result is a subtle portrait of early American politics, of George and Martha Washington (and their children and grandchildren) as people and as public figures, while providing a glimpse of 18th-century life. An author's note provides factual information about Oney. Rinaldi also includes excerpts from George Washington's writings about slavery as well as a bibliography and secondary sources. Though fast-paced and readable, the novel remains sometimes troubling. The dialect used for slaves, particularly field hands, is sometimes difficult and may be viewed as clich d, and the secondary characters are not fully developed. The book remains, however, a readable, seemingly informed novel.-Maria B. Salvadore, District of Columbia Public Library Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Rinaldi (Millicent's Gift, p. 740, etc.) enlarges upon the story of the real Oney Judge who was Martha Washington's favorite slave and lived in relative privilege. Her father has escaped, and Oney says, "It was all Patrick Henry's fault that my daddy left. That's what my Mama said." All of that "fancy speechifying in Richmond" planted ideas of liberty in her father, and this is the story of how these ideas slowly grew in his daughter as well. It's one thing to escape the horrors of slavery, but slavery was not so horrible for Oney. When General Washington became President Washington and lived in New York, Oney lived on the third floor in a cozy room with her own fireplace. The elegant house, overlooking the Hudson River, welcomed such luminaries as Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and Oney met them and felt part of their circle. Her mother has told her to run, but Oney says, "Why would I want to be free, wandering on the howling cold streets, wondering where I would work and live?" Fascinating and well-written, this weaves in much history: the Revolution, George Washington's conflicted views of slavery, plantation life, life in New York City and Philadelphia, the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, abolitionism, and the free Negro community of Philadelphia. It opens with a fine premise: Oney's narration of her story to a reporter for the famous abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator. What follows is an exploration of the will toward freedom, even for a young woman who knows freedom is likely to be more difficult than her enslavement. (author's note, Washington's writings about slavery, bibliography) (Historical fiction. 12+)

Product Details

Simon Pulse
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Product dimensions:
6.98(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.71(d)
Age Range:
12 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter Two

I continued to ask questions. There was much chance to learn and lots of people to learn from.

Servants gossiped. They had nothing else to do while they mended, chopped, spun, wove, dipped candles, plucked chickens, and ground wheat.

Servants (they were never called slaves) were close to everyone at the mansion house. They changed linens, washed them, emptied slops, knew who was sick and why, heard fevered mutterings and whispered prayers. They held secrets.

Nathan told me how the general had fought the French when he was a young man in the war. How he fought for the British. And now he was fighting against the British. I minded his words. I wanted to keep it all straight.

Nathan told me how the Fairfaxes, who lived in the plantation house next to ours, had been friends of the general since he was a boy. And they'd gone back to England because of the war.

He told me how the general's father had died when the general was eleven, and his older brother, Lawrence, took him under his wing. I couldn't believe the general had an older brother, because I thought the general was God. But then Nathan told me that Lawrence, the older brother, was dead, which I supposed allowed the general to be God.

He told me how this place known as Mount Vernon was once named Epsewasson, or Little Hunting Creek, by the Indians. That the Potomac was an Indian name too. It means River of Swans.

But Sambo Anderson told me about Africa.

I loved to visit Sambo. He raised lots of chickens that he sold to the mansion house. And his hunting dog could rout out grouse, partridge, ducks.

Most of the children were scared of Sambo. On his brown face strange markings were cut in. He wore rings in his ears, an owl's claw around his neck.

On a winter morning he sat outside his rude log hut polishing his old British musket that he hunted with. A small fire burned in front of him. On a spit over it he was roasting a rabbit. A muddy-colored blanket was draped around his shoulders.

"Sambo, I come to give you some biscuits from the house."

He nodded. "Little girl like you shud'na be out in the cole."

"Did you hunt last night?"

He nodded yes and pointed to the fowl hanging from a pole. He would sell it to Lady Washington. She counted on his bounty to dress up her table. He liked to hunt at night, like the owl that guided him. Said he could see better at night. I believed him.

I sat near the fire. "Tell me about Africa," I said.

I knew what would come first. I had heard it all before. The tribes. The way he said their names was like the sound of rain pattering softly on the roof. "Whydahs, Asante, Fanti, Ibo, Coromantee, Ga, Hausa," he said softly. And I waited for more.

"Vanished, all vanished," he said.

"What does that mean, Sambo?"

"Gone. From the Senegal River to the Congo, half a land away. Hausa lay in ambush, waited to capture Asante. Malinke went to war to capture Coromantee. Old, beautiful Africa puke up its own and sell them for slaves.

"Hausa make war on my people. Burn my village, kill my father. I was bound and sold for one hundred and seventy-two cowrie shells. Tied to others by a leather thong around my neck, marched for days to the sea."

I waited.

"My father was Asante king. They burned our village." He sighed and shook his head. "Now I am one of the Gone."

Then he fell into silence. There would be no more today. You couldn't push Sambo. "Tell me how it was when the general went to the Congress," I begged. Lady Washington had told us, but I liked the way Sambo told it better.

He shrugged and humphed. "Candles burn all night in the windows of the mansion house. People come and go. It wuz summer. News from the north bad, news from the south bad. Shadows on the bowlin' green. Paris an' Giles an' Joe from the stables hold the horse's reins. Gen'l's horse paw the ground, like he know sumptin' nobody else do. Heat lightnin' flash, like it did the night they burn my village.

Bad sign.

Finally outta the mansion house come the gen'l and that Henry man."

Patrick Henry. Yes. My daddy talked about that man. My daddy liked the way Mr. Henry talked about liberty.

"An' another man name of Pendleton. They come to ride off wif the gen'l. The gen'l's lady come outta the house an' watch 'em mount up. Then Billy Lee come from the stables all cocky like, 'cause he ridin' wif the gen'l to Philadelphia."

"And when he went to war?" I pushed.

"It wuz April. Whitefish runnin', we wuz plantin' corn. The gen'l's fish schooner on the river. The herring runnin' good. A rider come up the lane from Johnson's Ferry, like the devil be chasin' him. We Negroes all gather round and hear that up north they have a fight outsida Boston. The gen'l all excited. Everybody all excited. You never seed so many visitors as he had here then. This time he gather us round, tells us to work hard. Tells us he could lose everythin', could be taken away in chains, but he goin' to fight. He go off in the old green carriage wif that Mr. Lee and Mr. Carter. Say he be back in July. Well, he ain't come back yet. An' the old green carriage fetched home by Mr. Lund."

Sambo chuckled. "These white people doan know 'bout war. Ride off like gentlemans, wif lace at their necks, to meet and talk. All they do is talk. They doan know how quick you can be one of the Gone."

Aunt Myrtilla came walking down the path in the quarters, a shawl wrapped tightly around her, calling my name. "Oney? Oney Judge, where you be? Your mama want you now!"

Sambo nodded at me. I set down the biscuits from the kitchen and left.

I ran about freely with the other children. To Dogue Run Farm, Muddy Hole Farm. The general had five farms altogether.

Mama didn't like my going to Dogue Run. She knew the general wanted his people to be Christian. She didn't want me learning the old ways, because my future was in the mansion house.

At Dogue Run they had Reverend Will, who practiced the old African religion, besides preaching about Jesus. On Dogue Run the slaves had night meetings in the gullies, and for those meetings Reverend Will was the keeper of the washpot. At night meetings they turned the pot over so the sound of their secret prayers would go under it.

And Dogue Run had old Sinda, who conjured.

Sinda was another saltwater Negro. Born in Africa, like Sambo. We children loved to visit her. She could read the insides of a chicken to tell the future. She could make conjure bags out of red flannel, filled with ground-up toads' heads and goofer dust, which was graveyard dirt. She had a conch shell she said she had brought with her from Africa. "Water bring us here, water take us home," she'd said.

She told us never to let anyone get a piece of our hair.

"De hair is de most powerful thing your enemy kin git hold of," she said as we gathered around her. "It grow near de brain, an' anybody what git hold of it kin make your brain crazy."

She told us that if the general and Lady Washington had let her put a "fix" on Patsy, she would not have died. "Dat Patsy girl go crazy," she said. "She got fits 'cause spiders walk up an' down in her body. I cudda helped her. But no, dey doan want Old Sinda near de big house. Dat Patsy girl, she die 'cause of some sin her father do."

I made the mistake of telling Mama this, and she switched me. "That Mr. Custis, Patsy's daddy, was quality," she said. "An' you doan ever say such! An' you stay away from Dogue Run!"

But I still sneaked away and visited Old Sinda.

I recollect the way Sinda looked at me one day when I visited.

"Dis chile gonna be free one day," she said. "Dis chile gonna have trials, but she gonna be free."

I shivered. Did it mean my daddy would take me with him, when he was no longer bound to the Washingtons? But I soon put the thought in the back of my mind.

It was One-Handed Charles who told me how Master Jackie came to Dogue Run one day to ask Old Sinda to conjure for him. One-Handed Charles liked to brag that he was the last slave the general purchased. "In '72. From Mr. Massey. I come fer only thirty pounds 'cause I gots only one hand."

"But why did Master Jackie want Old Sinda to conjure?" I asked. "He has everything he wants at the mansion house."

"'Cause he be wantin' to git betrothed to Miss Nelly Calvert. He wuz only eighteen. She wuz sixteen, and there wuz carryin' on at the mansion house fer days when he told his stepfather, the gen'l, he want to leave school. Everybody knew to stay clear. Master Jackie come beggin' Old Sinda fer some hush water in a jug, so he could give it to the gen'l to drink and quiet him down."

"What's hush water?"

"Jus' plain water what they fix so if you drink it, you be nice."

"But everybody knows conjure doesn't work on white people," I argued.

One-Handed Charles shook his head. "That still up fer speculation. Old Sinda give Master Jackie powders an' charms in a bag to put under the gen'l's bed."

"Did it work?"

"Is Master Jackie wed to Miss Nelly Calvert?"


"The gen'l come ridin' over here when he find out Master Jackie visit. Say nuthin' 'bout conjure. Complained that the carrots wuz too thin that year, the timothy not good 'nuf. He in a temper, all right. But Master Jackie, he git wed come February."

This was how I learned about life around me, the past of both the whites and the Negroes.

It all became my past. Sometimes I mixed up people in Virginia society with African tribes. When there was fear, after the general left, that the British would come up the Potomac and seize Lady Washington and burn the place, I saw in my head Sambo Anderson's village burned by the Hausa tribe. I saw Lady Washington with a leather thong around her neck, marched for miles to the sea.

My nightmares were about the general's horse pawing the ground, heat lightning flashing overhead, and patsy rolling on the floor in fits because spiders were crawling up and down inside her body.

When you learn about someone, hear their stories, you tote them around. They flow in your blood and your dreams. They become a part of you. So that when something bad happens to you, there is something to liken it to. I know someone else it happened to. And he still lives and breathes.

So, when I was four and my daddy left, I cried, but I understood.

He became part of the Gone.

Copyright © 2002 by Ann Rinaldi

Meet the Author

Ann Rinaldi is acclaimed for her historical novels, of which eight have been named Best Books for Young Adults by the American Library Association. Author of more than thirty titles, she sets the standard for the genre in excellence and accuracy with her modern-day classics Wolf by the Ears and In My Father's House. She lives in New Jersey with her husband.

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Taking Liberty: The Story of Oney Judge, George Washington's Runaway Slave 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ok I'm only thirteen and this book was awsome. I picked it up at a book fair at my school, just for something to read. After the first chaapter, I couldn't put it down. Oney Judge the loyal 'servent' 'slave' was a wonderful charater and I wish that Ann Rinaldi would write a second book to go with the first because I want to know what happens to the character. It tells you at the end, but it would still be wonderful to read a second book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was awesome and it felt like you could feel Oney's feelings. I loved this book and it was hard to believe that this book was partially fiction. I thought this was really awesome.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a GREAT book. One of the best that Ann Rinaldi has written I think. It also intwines, along with the story, many facts about the Revolutionary War. Definately a fabolous read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It is an amazing, exciting and powerful story. It makes even history interesting. You should definitely read Taking Liberty!
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Guest More than 1 year ago
For Oney Judge life is going very well. The only things wrong are that she is a slave, and her mama won¿t let her go visit her master¿s other plantations. Oney¿s mother is not just an ordinary slave on some ordinary plantation either she is a house servant for George Washington¿s plantation called Mount Vernon. Spending most of her time in the Big House, Oney becomes one of Martha Washington¿s favorite slaves, and she doesn¿t get into trouble when Martha finds that she can read. After a big incident at the market Oney¿s mother is demoted to a field slave and blames Oney for her move. In believing this she starts beating Oney, which only gets Oney moved up into the Big House to live with other servants on the third floor. After this incident Martha makes Oney her personal slave although she is only 10 years of age. This causes separation between Oney and her mother that can never be fixed. As the years pass and George Washington becomes president, Oney travels with them to many different homes and states, some of which are Free states: meaning they don¿t hold with slavery. In these states Oney is encouraged to run and take her freedom while she can. Can Oney get up the courage to leave her comfortable life for a hard life with freedom? I enjoyed this book very much and am glad I choose to read it. This book is slow enough for anyone to follow but has enough action to keep you sucked in till the very end. This book also has history in it, but not an overload of information. It is history in a view not many would look. This book, called Taking Liberty, is very enjoyable to anyone who enjoys history or even if you just need a book to pick up and read. Ann Rinaldi is the author this book and if you enjoy books with a bit of history you might want to check out some of her books.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I think that Ann Ridali had a very poor style of writing and that she needs to keep her readers interest.It was the same thing over and over, she wanted to be free but then again she didn't.