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In May 1796, Ona Judge, Martha Washington’s enslaved maidservant, freed herself by walking out of the Washington’s Philadelphia home. She had learned that Martha intended to give her away as a wedding present to Elizabeth Parke Custis, her eldest granddaughter. Judge quietly slipped out of the house one evening, boarded a ship, and fled to New Hampshire. She lived there for the rest of her life. Despite their best efforts, the Washingtons were never able to recapture her.

On today’s episode, Ona Judge tells her own story. Library Research Fellow Sheila Arnold joins Jim Ambuske in character as Ona Judge to give voice to her life. Arnold is a historic character interpreter who performs as many historical figures, including Ona Judge and Madame CJ Walker, an African American entrepreneur and businesswoman who was one of the wealthiest self-made women in early 20th century America.

During the first half of today’s show, Ambuske interviews Arnold as Ona Judge, as she might have been in the last years of her life.

He then talks to Arnold herself about historic character interpretation and the powerful ways that performing as a formerly enslaved person can build bridges between communities.

About Our Guest:

Sheila Arnold currently resides in Hampton, VA. She is a Professional Storyteller, Character Interpreter and Teaching Artist. Through her company, History’s Alive!, Sheila has provided storytelling programs, historic character presentations, Christian monologues, dramatic/creative writing workshops, professional development for educators and inspirational/motivational speeches at schools, churches, libraries, professional organizations and museums, in 41 states since 2003.

About Our Host:

Jim Ambuske leads the Center for Digital History at the Washington Library. He received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Virginia in 2016 with a focus on Scotland and America in an Age of War and Revolution. He is a former Farmer Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities at the University of Virginia Law Library. At UVA, Ambuske co-directed the 1828 Catalogue Project and the Scottish Court of Session Project.  He is the co-author with Randall Flaherty of "Reading Law in the Early Republic: Legal Education in the Age of Jefferson," in The Founding of Thomas Jefferson's University ed. by John A. Rogasta, Peter S. Onuf, and Andrew O'Shaughnessy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019). Ambuske is currently at work on a book entitled Emigration and Empire: America and Scotland in the Revolutionary Era, as well as a chapter on Scottish loyalism during the American Revolution for a volume to be published by the University of Edinburgh Press.

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