“anytime 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 earth a free woman— I would.”
Mum Bett stood on the fringes of the small crowd in the town square of Sheffield, Massachusetts; wrapped in a shawl against the autumn chill. She had come to hear the reading of the new law. A courier had arrived from Boston with printed copies for all those who could read – Mum Bett couldn’t, so she came to listen.
A tall young man climbed up onto a wagon so he could be seen and heard.
“This here is the new Constitution of the Free Commonwealth of Massachusetts! Draw near and listen!”
“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!”
Mum Bett held tight to her daughter Betsy with her good arm. Her other arm had been badly burned and was still healing; she had been injured defending her daughter from the Missus, who tried to hit Betsy with a hot fireplace shovel.
She purposely left the wound uncovered for all to see. When asked about the wound she would reply “ask Missus,” even when Missus was standing there.
Mum Bett was a black slave, owned by the prosperous Ashley family. “Missus” was the lady of the household, Hannah Ashley, whom Mum had known since she was born. Mum had been a slave to Hannah’s father. She was a wedding gift from Hannah’s father when she married John Ashley.
Mum Bett listened closely to the new law. Her man, the father of Betsy, had gone off to fight in the Revolution. He never returned. Mum Bett didn’t know what happened to him but she liked to think he helped a little to make this new law.
At the conclusion of the reading Mum Bett saw Theodore Sedgwick in the crowd. Mum knew Theodore as a good christian man, a lawyer and a man of Yale; and, from what she heard while serving around the dining room table, Theodore Sedgwick was an abolitionist.
Mum Bett screwed up her courage.
“Good morning Mr. Sedgwick, sir.”
“Good morning Mum! Good morning Betsy! How are you both today? How’s that arm, Mum?”
“Oh it’s getting better, sir. I would like to ask you somethin’…..‘bout the new law? I want to try to understand what it means.”
“Mum, you come by any afternoon when you’re done with your morning chores and we can talk.”
“Thank you, Mr. Sedgwick. Thank you, sir. You’re a fine gentleman”
Mum and Betsy walked back to the Ashley place as Mum began mulling over in her mind what she wanted to say to Mr. Sedgwick. She had to have it all just right in her head. That night she had trouble sleeping with all the thinking going on but over the next few days she began to feel really good, aligning her thoughts the way she planned.
She was to do the shopping for the Missus the next week, and planned to drop by Mr. Sedgwick.’s office.
“Come in, Mum! What can I do for you today?”
“Well, Mr. Sedgwick, I was listening to the reading of the new law. I heard it said that all men are created equal and that every man has a right to freedom. Now I ain’t no dumb critter! Won’t the law give me my freedom? Isn’t that what the law says, Mr. Sedgwick?”
Sedgwick was stunned. His views had always leaned towards abolition; but now, here in front of him, was a slave asking the law to free her and her child and perhaps every other slave in the Commonwealth. Every case needed a plaintiff and abolition needed a slave brave enough to come forward. She was here.
He knew that while the new Massachusetts Constitution spoke of all men being equal it did not specifically abolish slavery.
“Mum, you know if we were to file a case you won’t be able to return to Colonel Ashley’s. Are you ready to leave them and face the consequences?” Sedgwick had no doubt of her answer. “You and Betsy can stay with us during the trial and work for wages. You understand that, if we lose, the Ashleys will have you back and there will be nothing anyone can do about it.”
Mum retrieved her daughter from what had been their home. The Ashleys, as expected, soon moved to get Mum back; she was property. Theodore Sedgwick took the case to the County Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington and plead her case under the new Massachusetts Constitution. It was August, 1781.
In an impassioned appeal to the jury Sedgwick argued that the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts states that all men are born free and equal and this provision effectively abolishes the institution of slavery everywhere that Massachusetts law prevails.
After an agonizing trial, Mum Bett won her’s and daughter’s freedom and was awarded compensation for her years of labor.
Immediately after obtaining her freedom Mum Bett took the name Elizabeth Freeman.
After the trial the Ashleys asked her to return and work for wages, but she remained in the household of Theodore Sedgwick as governess for his children until they were grown.
Her case became the precedent for the abolition of slavery in the entire Commonwealth. In a subsequent and final case Chief Justice Cushing of the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth, in his instructions to the jury, stated:
“As to the doctrine of slavery and the right of Christians to hold Africans in perpetual servitude, and sell and treat them as we do our horses and cattle, that (it is true) has been heretofore countenanced by the Province Laws formerly, but nowhere is it expressly enacted or established.
…whatever sentiments have formerly prevailed in this particular or slid in upon us by the example of others, a different idea has taken place with the people of America, more favorable to the natural rights of mankind, and to that natural, innate desire of Liberty, with which Heaven has inspired all the human race….
And upon this ground our Constitution of Government, by which the people of this Commonwealth have solemnly bound themselves, sets out with declaring that all men are born free and equal–and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and to have it guarded by the laws, as well as life and property–and in short is totally repugnant to the idea of being born slaves.
This being the case, I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution; and there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational creature.”
By the time of the census of 1790 there were no slaves in Massachusetts.
Mum Bett would later state that “anytime 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 earth a free woman— I would.”
From the time Elizabeth 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, Freeman and her daughter bought and moved into their own house in Stockbridge.
Elizabeth Sedgwick, one of Theodore Sedwick’s daughters, became an accomplished author and wrote an account of the life of Mum Bett.
Mum Bett’s daughter Betsy would marry Jack Burghardt, the maternal great-great grandfather of W. E. B. Dubois, who would be born in Great Barrington, the same town where the Court of Common Pleas granted freedom to Mum Bett and ultimately all of the slaves of Massachusetts.
When Mum died she was buried in the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge. The family provided a tombstone, which reads:
“ELIZABETH FREEMAN, 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
Theodore Sedgwick, who had been a delegate to the Continental Congress, was later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served as the fifth Speaker of the House. Between terms in the House he served as a U. S. Senator from Massachusetts and eventually was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court where he served for the remainder of his life. He is the 4th great-grandfather of the actress Kyra Sedgwick.
Dedicated to Massachusetts – where my married lesbian niece and her partner in life quietly raise their three children with the support of our families in peace and freedom.