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Elizabeth Freeman

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Elizabeth Freeman
(a.k.a. Mumbet)
Miniature portrait, oil pastel on ivory by Susan Anne Livingston Ridley Sedgwick, 1811
Elizabeth Freeman, aged about 67
Bornc. 1744
DiedDecember 28, 1829(1829-12-28) (aged 84–85)
Other namesBett, Mumbet, Mum Bett
Occupation(s)Midwife, herbalist, servant
Known forBrom and Bett v. Ashley (1781), gained freedom based on constitutional right to liberty

Elizabeth Freeman (c. 1744 – December 28, 1829), also known as Mumbet,[a] was one of the first enslaved African Americans to file and win a freedom suit in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling, in Freeman's favor, found slavery to be inconsistent with the 1780 Constitution of Massachusetts. Her suit, Brom and Bett v. Ashley (1781), was cited in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court appellate review of Quock Walker's freedom suit. When the court upheld Walker's freedom under the state's constitution, the ruling was considered to have implicitly ended slavery in Massachusetts.

Freeman was fighting for her freedom in the state where the legalization of slavery in early America first derives from. The northern United States, along with the south, engaged in harsh treatment of Black people, with Massachusetts even considering  “slavery as a way of life” until 1788.[1]

Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute's freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it—just to stand one minute on God's airth [sic] a free woman—I would.

— Elizabeth Freeman[2]

Realities of Slavery in the North[edit]

In schools across the United States, history classes teach the ideas that more well-known slave societies in the US were in the Southern colonies while the North was utilizing indentured servants, and minimally depended on the enslaved population (in comparison to the South). However, it’s not talked about as how as time went on, the enslaved population in the North who was previously “given the same status as indentured servants” later had their rights removed, and were merely seen as property[3] (chattel). This reality serves as context for Elizabeth Freeman’s life as despite what many authors say, the North was surely guilty of the mistreatment of Black people and heavily depended on enslaved peoples. In fact, it’s shocking to many that the legalization of slavery in the early life of America derives from Massachusetts (where Freeman is from). Moreover, the North is typically provided more leniency despite its harsh treatment of Black people, with Massachusetts even considering “slavery as a way of life” unitl 1788.[1] Additionally, a lot of information tends to be omitted when taught, especially when it comes to the high rate of suicide by Africans who were forcefully transported to America across the Atlantic.[4] Hence, the level of dehumanization that was present and served as the foundation of the system of slavery is extremely evident considering Africans viewed death as resistance and escape from what is to come. Moreover, this misconception of enslaved peoples serving their masters for life is false as many died by their early 20s.[4] Therefore, it’s critical to evaluate the system of slavery holistically in order to truly understand what people like Elizabeth Freeman endured.

Biography[edit]

Freeman was illiterate and left no written records of her life. Her early history has been pieced together from the writings of contemporaries to whom she told her story or who heard it indirectly, as well as from historical records.[5][6]

Freeman was born around 1744, enslaved by Pieter Hogeboom on his farm in Claverack, New York, where she was given the name Bet. When Hogeboom's daughter Hannah married John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, Hogeboom gave Bet, around seven years old, to Hannah and her husband. Freeman remained with them until 1781, when she had a child, Little Bet. She is said to have married, though no marriage record has been located. Her husband (name unknown) is said to have never returned from service in the American Revolutionary War.[7]

Throughout her life, Bet exhibited a strong spirit and sense of self. She came into conflict with Hannah Ashley, who was raised in the strict Dutch culture of the New York colony. In 1780, Bet prevented Hannah from striking a servant girl with a heated shovel; Bet shielded the girl and received a deep wound in her arm. As the wound healed, Bet left it uncovered as evidence of her harsh treatment.[2] Catharine Maria Sedgwick quotes Elizabeth: "Madam never again laid her hand on Lizzy. I had a bad arm all winter, but Madam had the worst of it. I never covered the wound, and when people said to me, before Madam,—'Why, Betty! what ails your arm?' I only answered—'ask missis!' Which was the slave and which was the real mistress?"[2]

John Ashley was a Yale-educated lawyer, wealthy landowner, businessman, enslaver, and community leader. His house was the site of many political discussions and the probable location of the signing of the Sheffield Declaration, which predated the United States Declaration of Independence.

Brom and Bett v. Ashley (1781)[edit]

In 1780, Freeman either heard the newly ratified Massachusetts Constitution read at a public gathering in Sheffield or overheard her enslaver talking at events in the home. She heard what included the following:[2]

All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.

Inspired by these words, Bet sought the counsel of Theodore Sedgwick, a young abolition-minded lawyer, to help her sue for freedom in court. According to Catherine Sedgwick's account, she told him: "I heard that paper read yesterday, that says, all men are created equal, and that every man has a right to freedom. I'm not a dumb critter; won't the law give me my freedom?"[2] After much deliberation, Sedgwick accepted her case, as well as that of Brom, another person Ashley enslaved. It is to be considered, however, that Brom was added to the case to strengthen it as "women had such limited legal rights" during the 18th century.[8] Sedgwick enlisted the aid of Tapping Reeve, the founder of Litchfield Law School, one of America's earliest law schools, located in Litchfield, Connecticut. They were two of the top lawyers in Massachusetts, and Sedgwick later served as US Senator. Arthur Zilversmit suggests the attorneys may have selected these plaintiffs to determine the status of slavery under the new state constitution.[9] This meant that when Sedgwick took on the case, he hoped to find an answer to the question of constitutionality regarding slavery in Massachusetts through his representation of Freeman in court. Hence, Brom and Bett v. Ashley (1781) was a "test case".[10]

The case of Brom and Bett v. Ashley was heard in August 1781 by the County Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington.[11] Sedgwick and Reeve asserted that the constitutional provision that "all men are born free and equal" effectively abolished slavery in the state. When the jury ruled in Bett's favor, she became the first African-American woman to be set free under the Massachusetts state constitution.

The jury found that "Brom & Bett are not, nor were they at the time of the purchase of the original writ the legal Negro of the said John Ashley."[12] However, like many slave owners, Ashley refrained from admitting to the true nature of his actions. While arguing for his right to own Brom and Bett in court, Ashley described them as his “servants”’ for life, rather than slaves.[1] This intentional word choice underscores the attempts at minimizing the reality of the institution of slavery.

The court assessed damages of thirty shillings and awarded both plaintiffs compensation for their labor. Ashley initially appealed the decision but a month later dropped his appeal, apparently having decided the court's ruling on the constitutionality of slavery was "final and binding."[9]

An important note, however, is that Sedgwick and Ashley actually went from colleagues when creating the Sheffield Resolves (resisting British rule), to Ashley being sued by Sedgwick. This change in relationship and perception of one another proves to be interesting as Sedgwick didn’t act on the issues of slavery until representing Freeman in her court case.

Relationship with the Sedgwicks[edit]

After the ruling, Bet took the name Elizabeth Freeman. Although Ashley asked her to return to his house and work for wages, she chose to work in attorney Sedgwick's household. She worked for his family until 1808 as a senior servant and governess to the Sedgwick children, and in fact, the name “Mumbet” that Freeman is commonly called was created by the Sedgwick Children.[13]

The Sedgwick children were known to have a close relationship with Freeman as she was an integral part of the family. Of the Sedgwick children, Catharine Sedgwick, later became a well-known author and wrote an account of her governess's life. Also working at the Sedgwick household during much of this time was Agrippa Hull, a free black man who had served with the Continental Army for years during the American Revolutionary War.[14]

Additionally, Catharine Sedgwick was denoted as the only “major American writer” who also happened to be a woman for many years. Despite having been one of the children Freeman had helped raise, Catharine’s essay, “Slavery in New England” doesn’t emphasize the severity of slavery in the North, and New England especially.[13] She describes it as if there weren’t that many enslaved people for there to be a “condition of a great evil”. She even goes on to describe slavery in the state as a “gentle” and “mild” which further undermines the severity of the institution of slavery in Massachusetts.[13]

Nonetheless, Catharine Sedgwick continued to portray the positive relationship she had with Freeman in her work as Freeman was extremely involved in her and her siblings' upbringing. Interestingly enough, however, Sedgwick is believed to have not attended Freeman’s funeral despite their supposed close relationship.[13]

Freeman is believed to have spent over two decades acting as a motherly figure for Theodore and Pamela Sedgwick's children as Pamela was suffering from a mental illness that prevented her from being fully present.[13] From the time Freeman gained her freedom, she became widely recognized and in demand for her skills as a healer, midwife, and nurse. After the Sedgwick children were grown, and Freeman spent around 20 years collecting money,[8] Freeman moved into her own house on Cherry Hill in Stockbridge, near her daughter, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Death[edit]

Freeman's actual age was never known, but an estimate on her tombstone puts her age at about 85. She died in December 1829 and was buried in the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Freeman remains the only non-Sedgwick buried in the Sedgwick plot. They provided a tombstone inscribed as follows:

ELIZABETH FREEMAN, also known by the name of MUMBET died Dec. 28th 1829. Her supposed age was 85 Years. She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly thirty years; She could neither read nor write, yet in her own sphere she had no superior or equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a trust, nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper and the tenderest friend. Good mother, farewell.[5]

Legacy[edit]

The decision in the 1781 case of Elizabeth Freeman was cited as precedent when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard the appeal of Quock Walker v. Jennison later that year and upheld Walker's freedom. These cases set the legal precedents that ended slavery in Massachusetts. Vermont had already abolished it explicitly in its constitution.[5][6][9][15]

The gold bead necklace visible in the portrait of Freeman was re-made into a bracelet and carries her nickname.[16] This necklace was re-made by Catharine Sedgwick as she obtained it after Freeman had died.

A celebration of Elizabeth Freeman's role in the walk to freedom from enslavement included unveiling a statue in her honor by the Sheffield Historical Society in August 2022.[17][18]

Connection to W. E. B. Du Bois[edit]

Civil Rights leader and historian W. E. B. Du Bois claimed Freeman as his relative and wrote that she married his maternal great-grandfather, "Jack" Burghardt.[19][20] However, Freeman was 20 years senior to Burghardt, and no record of such a marriage has been found. It may have been Freeman's daughter, Betsy Humphrey, who married Burghardt after her first husband, Jonah Humphrey, left the area "around 1811" after Burghardt's first wife died (c. 1810). If so, Freeman would have been Du Bois's step-great-great-grandmother. Anecdotal evidence supports Humphrey's marrying Burghardt; a close relationship of some form is likely.[5]

In the media and arts[edit]

  • Season 1, episode 37 of the television show Liberty's Kids, titled "Born Free and Equal", is about Elizabeth Freeman.[21] It was first aired in 2003, and in it, she was voiced by Yolanda King.[21]
  • The story of Elizabeth Freeman was featured in season 1, episode 4, of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Freeman's lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick, is the fourth great-grandfather of Kyra Sedgwick, one of the guests of the episode.[22]
  • The Portuguese fiber artist Joana Vasconcelos created a large installation in Freeman's honor in 2020 entitled Valkyrie Mumbet for the MassArt Art Museum (MAAM) in Boston, MA.[23]
  • Elizabeth Freeman's identity as a determined individual was captured in the book written for children and adolescents titled “A Free Woman On God's Earth: The True Story of Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman, The Slave Who Won Her Freedom” by authors Jana Laiz and Ann-Elizabeth Barnes.[13]
  • Freeman and her contributions are honored at D.C.’s Museum of African American History, and Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution.[13]

Impact as a pioneer[edit]

Elizabeth Freeman is a trailblazer and her efforts don’t go unnoticed. Many enslaved African American peoples’ efforts, let alone the efforts of enslaved women, go unnoticed, but it’s essential to realize how influential and integral Freeman was to the growth and progression of society. In fact, she’s noted as “ ‘the Rosa Parks of her time’ ”.[13] Freeman saw the potential in herself and acted on it despite any obstacles she faced. Her efforts fueled the movement towards liberation, and her crucial success as a Black woman served and continues to serve as an inspiration for many.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Variously also Bet or Mum Bett.
  1. ^ a b c Blanck, Emily (2002). "Seventeen Eighty-Three: The Turning Point in the Law of Slavery and Freedom in Massachusetts". The New England Quarterly. 75 (1): 24–51. doi:10.2307/1559880. JSTOR 1559880 – via JSTOR.
  2. ^ a b c d e Sedgwick, Catharine Maria (1853). "Slavery in New England". Bentley's Miscellany. 34. London: 417–424.
  3. ^ Wilkinson, Freddie (2023). ""New England Colonies' Use of Slavery"". National Geographic Society.
  4. ^ a b McDuffie, Candace (2024). "21 truths and myths about the Transatlantic Slave Trade". National African American Reparations Commission.
  5. ^ a b c d Piper, Emilie; Levinson, David (2010). One Minute a Free Woman: Elizabeth Freeman and the Struggle for Freedom. Salisbury, CT: Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area. ISBN 978-0-9845492-0-7.
  6. ^ a b Rose, Ben Z. (2009). Mother of Freedom: Mum Bett and the Roots of Abolition. Waverley, Massachusetts: Treeline Press. ISBN 978-0-9789123-1-4.
  7. ^ Wilds, Mary (1999). Mumbet: The Life and Times of Elizabeth Freeman: The True Story of a Slave Who Won Her Freedom. Greensboro, North Carolina: Avisson Press Inc. ISBN 1-888105-40-2.
  8. ^ a b Kelley, Mary (April 2, 2013). "Jury Decides in Favor of Elizabeth "Mum Bett" Freeman". Mass Moments. Retrieved March 13, 2024.
  9. ^ a b c Zilversmit, Arthur (October 1968). "Quok Walker, Mumbet, and the Abolition of Slavery in Massachusetts". The William and Mary Quarterly. Third. 25 (44). Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture: 614–624. doi:10.2307/1916801. JSTOR 1916801.
  10. ^ Alexander, Kerri Lee (2019). "Elizabeth Freeman". National Women's History Museum.
  11. ^ "Massachusetts Constitution, Judicial Review, and Slavery – The Mum Bett Case". mass.gov. 2011. Retrieved July 4, 2011.
  12. ^ Transcript of Case No. 1, Brom & Bett vs. John Ashley Esq., Book 4A, p. 55. Inferior Court of Common Pleas, Berkshire County, Great Barrington, MA, 1781, transcribed by Brady Barrows at Berkshire County Courthouse, 1998.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h Edelstein, Sari (2019). "Good Mother, Farewell: Elizabeth Freeman's Silence and the Stories of Mumbet". The New England Quarterly. 92 (4): 584–614. doi:10.1162/tneq_a_00770.
  14. ^ Nash, Gary B. (July 2, 2008), "Agrippa Hull: revolutionary patriot", Black Past. Retrieved March 12, 2012.
  15. ^ "Africans in America/Part 2/Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett)". pbs.org. Retrieved July 7, 2010.
  16. ^ Sedgwick, Catharine Maria (December 30, 2022). "Bracelet made of gold beads from necklace of Elizabeth Freeman ("Mumbet")". Massachusetts Historical Society. Retrieved December 30, 2022.
  17. ^ "Elizabeth Freeman Monument". Sheffield Historical Society. Retrieved August 19, 2022.
  18. ^ "Equity, logistics and the impacts of the Orange Line shutdown". www.wbur.org. August 19, 2022. Retrieved August 19, 2022.
  19. ^ Du Bois, W. E. B. (1984). Dusk of Dawn. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers. p. 11. Originally published 1940.
  20. ^ Levering, David (1993). W. E. B. Du Bois, Biography of a Race 1868–1919. New York City: Henry Holt and Co. p. 14.
  21. ^ a b "Watch Liberty's Kids Season 1 Episode 37: Born Free and Equal". TV Guide. Retrieved February 9, 2018.
  22. ^ "FINDING YOUR ROOTS (Kevin Bacon & Kyra Sedgwick) - PBS America". January 22, 2013. Retrieved January 19, 2019 – via YouTube.[dead YouTube link]
  23. ^ "Joana Vasconcelos | MassArt Art Museum". maam.massart.edu. Retrieved April 7, 2021.

External links[edit]