The Life of Ona Judge

By Marisa Mathias

This lesson will be a jigsaw cooperative learning activity. Students will be divided into groups of 3 - this will be their jigsaw group. Each jigsaw group member will be assigned an “expert group” 1 - 3. These expert groups will meet for 15 minutes to review and discuss their topics and then share their knowledge with their jigsaw groups and discuss the essential question for 20 minutes. The remaining 10 minutes can be used for the closing and whole class discussion.  You can learn more about how to implement the jigsaw classroom method here:  

Guiding Question 

Why is it essential to learn about the history of slavery and the lives of enslaved women such as Ona Judge? 


45 minutes


Examine the life of Ona Judge, the impact of slavery on African American women, and the historical context of slavery in the American early republic period. 


Knowledge about slavery in the colonies and early United States.


Warm Up: 

The class will watch this ~5 minute Biography of Ona Judge in order to gain knowledge of her family, enslaved labor at Mount Vernon, and how she escaped from Philadelphia.  


Teacher should divide the students up into groups of 3 to discuss assigned primary sources. Depending on the number of students in the class, there may be two of the same Expert Group. Tell each group that they will read their assigned documents and answer the below discussion questions for the next 15 minutes before they will share their findings/answers with the entire class. The Expert Groups are as follows: 

Expert Group 1: Historical Context - Enslaved Women 

Students in this group will read this historical overview of The Slave Experience: Men, Women and Gender in order to gain knowledge of the African American women’s experience under enslavement and to understand why Judge escaped to freedom.  

Expert Group 2: Historical Context - Slavery at Mount Vernon 

Students will view the ~ 7 min video “Lives Bound Together - Slavery at Mount Vernon” in order to gain knowledge about George Washington’s use of enslaved labor at his plantation and home, Mount Vernon. 

Expert Group 3: Historical Context - Slavery and Abolition in the Early Republic 

Students in this group will examine 2 links in order to gain knowledge of Abolitionism in Pennsylvania vs. the new Fugitive Slave Law of 1793.  

Discussion Questions for expert groups to share with jigsaw groups:  

  • How did the experience of enslaved women differ from enslaved men? 

  • How can we learn about individuals who did not leave a personal written record? 

  • Compare/contrast laws regarding slavery. What impact did the new Fugitive Slave Law (1793) have on enslaved people? In what ways was Pennsylvania fighting for abolition? 

  • Essential Question: In what ways do you think the historical context of the time period influenced Judge’s pursuit of freedom? 

  • In what ways do you think her context influenced Judge’s pursuit of freedom? 


The teacher should then set up Jigsaw Groups (a model of which can be found here). The teacher should tell these Jigsaw Groups that they will have 20 minutes to share their knowledge from their Expert Group and discuss the essential questions. 


Closing for the Whole Class:  

Students will look at the excerpt from the forward of Dunbar’s Never Caught and discuss the questions that follow with their group: 

  • Most American high school students are familiar with the nation’s first president, George Washington, but are unaware of stories like Judge’s. Why do you think this is the case?  

  • Whose story is privileged and whose is silenced? Why?  

  • Why do you believe her story is now being heard?  

  • Why is it essential to learn about the history of slavery and the lives of enslaved women such as Ona Judge?  

Assessment / Homework

The discussion questions for the closing can be used as an exit ticket or a homework assignment. 


An additional extension: Create a biography or one-pager about another individual enslaved by George Washington to learn about their life and significance: 

Future Research / Resources

Dunbar, Erica Armstrong. Never Caught : The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge. Simon & Schuster, 2017. 


D2.His.1.9-12. Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts. 


D2.His.3.9-12. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to assess how the significance of their actions changes over time and is shaped by the historical context. 


D2.His.4.9-12. Analyze complex and interacting factors that influenced the perspectives of people during different historical eras 


D2.His.5.9-12. Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.