Mum Bett and the Freedom Suit (Elizabeth Freeman)

Elizabeth Freeman, first known as Mum Bett or Mumbet, was born around 1742 to African parents who were enslaved by Pieter Hogeboom in Claverack, New York. Hogeboom’s daughter Hannah married Col. John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, and Bett, most likely inherited by Hannah in 1758, moved to their household.

The story of her leaving the Ashley household varies. They state that Hannah, in an angry fit, tried to hit Bett’s younger sister Lizzie with a heated kitchen shovel. Bett, stood in the way and was hit instead, causing a deep wound. Bett left, and refused to come back. When Col. Ashley asked the law to bring back his “property,” Bett contacted lawyer Theodore Sedgwick. Stories recount that when Sedgwick inquired as to how she got the idea that she deserved to be free, she said “By keepin’ still and mindin’ things.”

Though that story is unsubstantiated, there are many records showing that Col. Ashley’s home was the site of meetings regarding the Sheffield Declaration (1773), a precursor to the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Bett could have easily overheard their conversations. The document included the assertion that “all men are born free and equal.” Mum Bett felt that those words applied to her. Theodore Sedgwick thought Bett’s case would gain more strength with another plaintiff so Brom, who was enslaved by Col. Ashley’s son, was added, and the case went to court in May of 1781.

On August 21, 1781, Bett and Brom won. While other enslaved peoples had won freedom with abuse claims, Bett’s victory meant that the practice of slavery, not solely the abuse, was illegal, and that slavery could not be defended in Massachusetts courts. She was the first African American woman to be freed under the Massachusetts state constitution. Bett was awarded 30 shillings for her years of slavery and following the trial, chose a new name: Elizabeth Freeman.

Col. Ashley asked her to return to his household for a paid position. She declined, choosing to work for pay in the Sedgwick household. She brought with her daughter Betsy (whose father is said to have died during the Revolutionary War, though neither records of this nor of the marriage can be found) and began her new job as head servant. She nursed Theodore’s often ailing wife Pamela, and helped raise the 7 children. Freeman even defended the occupants and valuables in the Sedgwick home during Shay’s Rebellion (1786).

After 22 years of saving, she purchased a home, and eventually had a 19-acre farm. Freeman was the second wealthiest black landowner in the area. She continued working in the community as a healer, nurse, and midwife. October 18, 1829, in ailing health, she created a will, unusual for a woman during this time, let alone an African American woman, but speaks to her status. Since she could not read or write, she dictated her wishes to the lawyer and signed with her mark, a cross. She died December 28, 1829, a beloved member of the community.

Of Freeman’s possessions, two remain today: a gold beaded necklace (later turned into a bracelet) and a miniature portrait, showing Freeman wearing the necklace (above). Descendants of the Sedgwick family donated them to the Massachusetts Historical Society. The African American Heritage Trail includes Mum Bett’s Trail, a tour that includes Col. John Ashley’s House, Theodore Sedgwick’s House, the site of Freeman’s home, and her gravesite. Though she left behind few physical objects, what Freeman did create was a legacy of strong resistance, a trailblazer and a strong voice in the early fight for freedom.

Written for Sheroes of History by Regina Gorham

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