Black History Month: Elizabeth ‘Mum Bett’ Freeman (1742-1829)
February is Black History Month. Throughout this month The Royal Gazette will feature people, events, places and institutions that have contributed to the shaping of African history
Elizabeth Freeman was born into slavery in Claverack, New York, in 1742. During the 1770s, she lived in the household of Colonel John Ashley of Sheffield, a prominent citizen who at that time also served as a judge of the Berkshire Court of Common Pleas.
Colonel Ashley purchased Freeman from a Mr Hogeboom when she was six months old. Upon suffering physical abuse from Ashley's wife, Freeman escaped her home and refused to return. She found a sympathetic ear with attorney Theodore Sedgwick, the father of the writer Catherine Sedgwick.
Apparently, as she served dinner to her masters, she had heard them speaking of freedom — in this case, freedom from England — and she applied the concepts of equality and freedom for all to herself.
In 1781, Freeman, with the assistance of Sedgwick, initiated the case Brom and Bett v Ashley that set a precedent for the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts.
According to the Massachusetts Judicial Review, the 1781 Berkshire county case of Brom and Bett v Ashley, often referred to as the Mum Bett or Elizabeth Freeman case, was unique because it occurred less than one year after the adoption of the Massachusetts Constitution and because, in contrast to previous freedom suits, there was no claim that John Ashley, the slave owner, had violated a specific law. This case was a direct challenge to the very existence of slavery in Massachusetts.
Once free, Freeman stayed with the Sedgwick family as a servant in gratitude to Theodore Sedgwick. Sedgwick, in arguing a later case, used the example of Freeman when he said in defence of the abolition of slavery: “If there could be a practical refutation of the imagined superiority of our race to hers, the life and character of this woman would afford that refutation.”
Freeman died on December 28, 1829, aged 85.
Sources: Sidney Kaplan and Emma Nogrady Kaplan, The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1989);
“The Mum Bett Case”, Massachusetts Constitution Judicial Review, http://www.mass.gov/courts/jaceducation/constjuslavery.html#d; Gay Gibson Cima, “Phillis Wheatley and Black Women Critics: The Borders of Strategic Visibility”, Theatre Journal 52:4 (2000), 465-495