Today I welcome authors Diana Rubino and Piper Huguley. Their book, Oney: My Escape from Slavery, came out in January.
The hour finally came—while they ate dinner.
Nothing heavied my heart—not remorse, not guilt, not sadness upon fleeing my master and mistress. Raw thirst for freedom overcame all that. I walked straight past the Washingtons and out that door. When I shut it, I left them—and my forced bondage— behind me.
I tore through the muddy streets in pouring rain. Gasping for breath, soaked to the skin, my heart slamming in terror, I glanced behind me, again and again. No one pursued me—yet. I dreaded and expected pounding footsteps, a clap on my shoulder. But, I asked myself, who would chase me through the driving rain? No, it is not possible, I affirmed—they didn’t even know I’d left the kitchen.
At the Jones house I slowed and caught my breath. When Absalom opened the door, I staggered inside, laughing, sobbing, gulping for dear life.
I spent the night pacing the attic room, hands clasped. “I beg of you, dear God, walk beside me on this journey. See me through this safe. Don’t let them capture me. I only want to be your servant, no one else’s.”
As daybreak nudged away the darkness, I fell to my knees, weary with fatigue. “Thank you, dear God, for ending my final night of bondage.”
The story behind the story
Teenaged Oney Judge was Martha Washington’s ‘favorite servant.’ Oney and Martha both longed for freedom, but in very 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.”
It is 1793 – a decade after General George Washington led America to victory in its fight for independence from Britain.
With freedom secured, the general has been persuaded to accept a second term as president of the new nation. But in his heart he wants to go back to being a farmer. And being a farmer means he has slaves. Leading a nation is a demanding and often lonely business and Lady Washington is unable to persuade her husband to give up his public ‘duty’.
At least she has help. Oney Judge is her ‘personal servant’ – and soon-to-be confidante. Oney is a ‘quadroon’ – three parts white and one part black. So, unlike the white people who so recently gained their independence from the Mother Country, Oney is not free. She is Lady Washington’s inherited property, though the word ‘slave’ is never spoken. Oney works in “the big house” at Mount Vernon, sewing dresses and serving tea. Lady Washington treats her as well as her own grandchildren. But though she is often mistaken as a Washington relative by visitors, Oney remains in bondage.
In the spring of 1796, Lady Washington tells Oney that she will make her granddaughter Eliza a nice wedding gift. Oney soon discovers this does not mean sewing a negligee or a quilt for a gift. No, it means that she will be the gift.
This is the day that Oney decides to escape – to put her forced bondage behind her and make her bid for freedom. On May 21, 1796, Oney walks straight past the Washingtons and out the front door. Although they make several attempts to capture her, she lives the rest of her life in freedom.
Diana Rubino’s Oney: My Escape From Slavery is a painstakingly re-imagined account of a true and painful story told generations on. At its heart is the paradox of liberty – for an individual, for a race, for a nation. In a modern world where cultures and histories collide, it is a timely reminder of perspectives on ‘slavery’ and ‘freedom’ that we may have become blind to. It is a big, strong, uplifting book with a soul.
About the Authors
Diana writes about folks who shook things up. Her passion for history and travel has taken her to every locale of her stories, set in Medieval and Renaissance England, Egypt, the Mediterranean, colonial Virginia, New England, and New York. Her urban fantasy romance FAKIN’ IT won a Top Pick award from Romantic Times. She is a member of Romance Writers of America, the Richard III Society and the Aaron Burr Association. When not writing, she runs CostPro, Inc., an engineering business, with her husband Chris. In her spare time, Diana bicycles, golfs, plays her piano and devours books of any genre. She spends as much time as possible just livin’ the dream on her beloved Cape Cod. You can find out more about her on her website.
Piper Huguley is a two-time Golden Heart ®finalist and is the author of the “Home to Milford College” series. The series follows the building of a college from its founding in 1866. Book #1 in the series, The Preacher’s Promise was named a top ten Historical Romance in Publisher’s Weekly by the esteemed historical romance author, Beverly Jenkins and received Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest Contest of Self-Published e-books in 2015.
Her new series “Born to Win Men” starts with A Champion’s Heart as Book #1. A Champion’s Heart was named by Sarah MacLean of The Washington Post as a best romance novel selection for December 2016.
She blogs about the history behind her novels on her website. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband and son.
You can purchase Oney: My Escape from Slavery on Amazon.