An 1824 legal clause in Missouri saw a number of slave challenge for freedom but Elizabeth Freeman was the first to challenge for her freedom in Massachusetts in 1781.
Born in the early 1740s in Claverack, New York, she was originally named Bett. She lived on Hogeboom property for seven years before being given away as a marriage gift. In Sheffield, Massachusetts, she had a child named Little Bet. Her life in Massachusetts with the Ashley family—particularly Hogeboom’s daughter—saw her push back against her circumstances a number of times.
She would have a life changing epiphany in 1780 when she heard Article 1 of the new Massachusetts Constitution. In short, the Article gave promises of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness on the basis that “all men are born free and equal” with “certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights.”
CASE AGAINST THE ASHLEY FAMILY
Bett would go to Theodore Sedgwick, a lawyer who was pro-abolition to see if he would represent her. He eventually agreed to take her and another Ashley slave named Brom on as clients. He was joined by the founder of Litchfield Law School, Tapping Reeve. The weight of this particular case rested on “all men are born free and equal” which threw out slavery in Massachusetts.
The case went to the jury in August 1781. It was decided that Bett and Brom weren’t the legal property of John Ashley. The jury awarded the two their freedom, thirty shillings in damages, and compensation for their years of labor with the Ashleys. The decision was in the appeals process but dropped.
With her newly gained freedom Bett changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman. She offered a job with the Ashley household but instead opted to work for Sedgwick where she remained until 1808. Her role was as the head servant of the house and governess. One of Segdwick’s children, Catharine, would write about Freeman’s life. Following her time with the Segdwicks, Elizabeth Freeman and her daughter, Betsy Humphrey purchased their own home in Stockbridge.
On December 28, 1829, at the age of 85, Elizabeth Freeman passed away. She was buried with the Sedgwick family.