By Lestey Gist, The Gist of Freedom
The ruling required the slave to pay damages….
Elizabeth “Mum Bett”Freeman, aware of the 1780 Massachusetts state constitution and its declaration of all men being free and equal, Freeman sought the services of Theodore Sedgwick, an attorney with anti-slavery sentiments. In 1781, a Massachusetts court awarded Freeman and another enslaved African named Brom for their freedom. The ruling required the slave to pay damages.
This set a major civil rights precedent. W.E.B. DuBois even claimed Freeman, who adopted the name after her legal victory, as his maternal great-grandmother .
Elizabeth Freeman was born in 1742, to enslaved African parents in Claverack, New York. At the age of six months she was purchased, along with her sister, by John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, whom she served until she was nearly forty. By then she was known as “Mum Bett,” and had a young daughter known as “Little Bett.” Her husband was killed during the in the Revolutionary War.
One day, the mistress angrily tried to hit Mum Bett’s sister with a heated kitchen shovel. Mum Bett intervened and received the blow instead. Furious, she left the house and refused to return. When Colonel Ashley appealed to the law for her return, she called on Theodore Sedgewick, a lawyer from Stockbridge who had anti-slavery sentiments, and asked for his help to sue for her freedom.
Mum Bett had listened carefully while the wealthy men she served talked about the Bill of Rights and the new state constitution, and she decided that if all people were born free and equal, then the laws must apply to her, too. Sedgewick agreed to take the case, which was joined by another of Ashley’s slaves, a man called Brom.
Brom & Bett v. Ashley was argued before a county court. The jury ruled in favor of Bett and Brom, making them the first enslaved African-Americans to be freed under the Massachusetts constitution of 1780, and ordered Ashley to pay them thirty shillings and costs. This municipal case set a precedent that was affirmed by the state courts in the Quock Walker case and ultimately led to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts.
After the ruling, despite pleas from Colonel Ashley that she return and work for him for wages, Mum Bett went to work for the Sedgewicks. She stayed with them as their housekeeper for years, eventually setting up house with her daughter. She became a much sought-after nurse and midwife.
Elizabeth Freeman died in 1829, a free woman, surrounded by her children and grandchildren in the free state of Massachusetts that she had helped to create. One of her great-grandchildren was W.E.B. DuBois, born almost forty years later in Great Barrington, the very town where her historic case was argued.
The tombstone of Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett), the African-American woman whose suit for freedom helped bring about the end of slavery in Massachusetts, can still be seen in the old burial ground of Stockbridge. It reads: “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.”
Article & Image Credit: Courtesy Linda Mizell, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston