Elizabeth Freeman (c.1744—December 28, 1829), also known as Bet or Mum Bett, was the first black slave 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 Massachusetts State Constitution. Her suit, Brom and Bett v. Ashley (1781), was cited in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court appellate review of Quock Walker’s freedom suit.
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.
The Case of Elizabeth Freeman
Freedom suits are legal petitions filed by slaves for freedom. Between America’s colonial period and the American Civil War, a number of civil actions were brought to courts of law by STRONG BLACK WOMEN that challenged both the moral maxim and the legal legitimacy of JUST-SUBJECTION 1 and WRONGFUL-ENSLAVEMENT 2 in America. This series of columns will explore those lawsuits and expose lessons that can be engaged by the Body of Christ and the Pro-Life movement today, in the wake of the 1973 United States Supreme Court (USSC) decisions in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton.
White Space Holder
Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett)
This Ruling Informally Ended Slavery In Massachusetts …
Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett)
Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett), in early life known as Bett and later Mum Bett (circa 1742 — December 28th, 1829), was among the first Black slaves in Massachusetts to file a “Freedom Suit” and win in the Massachusetts Bay Colony county court under the 1780 Massachusetts constitution,
with a ruling that slavery was illegal. 3
Black, Female, Illiterate And A Slave
“She was a strong, courageous, powerful woman who despite the triple disadvantages of being Black, a woman, and illiterate never saw herself as a victim and instead lived a rich and independent life with much of her time and energy devoted to helping others. She continues to be a role model whose story continues to speak to many women today, rich and poor and Black and White.” 4 — Emilie Piper and David Levinson
Elizabeth was born to enslaved parents (native Africans) around 1742 at the farm of Pieter Hogeboom in Claverack, New York. When Hannah (Hogeboom’s daughter) married Colonel John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, she was sold as a young teenager, along with her sister, to the newlyweds. On the Sheffield plantation Elizabeth was married, given the name “Bett” and her daughter was given the name “Little Bett.” Bett served Hannah and Colonel Ashley until 1781. It is both note worthy and important to acknowledge here that Elizabeth’s husband (name unknown) was killed while fighting in the American Revolutionary War (1775 — 1783).
According to American novelist, Catharine Maria Sedgwick 5 (December 28th, 1789 — July 31st, 1867) who by the way promoted “Republican motherhood,” 6 Bett was strong spirited and had a healthy sense of self. One day (circa 1780), Hannah Ashley, who was raised in the very strict and Christian Dutch culture of the New York colony, was disciplining Little Bett (that is Bett’s daughter) with a heated shovel. In an effort to protect her daughter, Bett stepped in between the heated shovel 7 and her daughter receiving a very deep wound in her arm. While the wound would eventually heal, Bett was scarred for life and left the wound uncovered as evidence of Hannah’s brutal treatment of slaves. Again, according to Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Bett is quoted saying: “Madam (i.e., Hannah Ashley) never again laid her hand on Lizzy [sic]. 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, ‘Betty, what ails your arm?’ I only answered … ‘ask missis!’ 8 [Now] which was the slave and which was the real misses?”
All Men Are Born Free And Equal
“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.” 9 — Massachusetts Constitution, Article 1 (1773)
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” 10 — United States Declaration of Independence (1776)
Sheffield Declaration 1773
As a Yale University educated lawyer, wealthy landowner, businessman and leader, Colonel Ashley opened his home to the community. On many occasions, Ashley’s house was the site of political discussions and according to the record, the probable location of the signing of the Sheffield Resolves 11 which predated the United States Declaration of Independence (Thursday, July 4th, 1776). The Sheffield Resolves, also known as the Sheffield Declaration, was a Colonial American petition against British tyranny and a manifesto for individual rights, approved by the Town of Sheffield, Massachusetts, on Tuesday, January 12th, 1773. While it is easy to see how Article 1 of the Massachusetts Constitution (above) was echoed in the most famous line of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence 12 (above) three (3) years later, it is also easy to understand how such words as “all men are born free and equal” caught Bett’s attention as they were being read at Sheffield’s home.
The 1781 Berkshire County Case Of Brom And Bett vs. Ashley
“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?” 13 — Elizabeth Freedom (Mum Bett)
Court Order To Free Elizabeth Freeman
After overhearing discussions of the new Massachusetts State Constitution, the Bill of Rights and that all people were born free and equal in the Ashely’s home, Bett believed the law had to be applicable to her as well. As such, Bett asked for the counsel of a young abolition-minded lawyer named Theodore Sedgwick 14 to help her use the law to sue for freedom. Sedgwick believed slaves were indeed human beings, accepted her case and that of Brom, another of Colonel Ashley’s slaves. Next, Sedgwick recruited the help of the founder of America’s first law school (located at Litchfield, Connecticut), Tapping Reeve. When the case of Brom and Bett vs. Ashley 15 was heard before the County Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Sedgwick and Reeve argued that the constitutional provision that “all men are born free and equal” nullified the slave system in the state. In the end, the jury ruled in Bett’s favor and found that: “Brom and Bett are not, nor were they at the time of the purchase of the original writ the legal Negro of the said John Ashley.” So in August of 1781, the court assessed damages of thirty (30) shillings, awarded both plaintiffs (i.e., Brom and Bett) compensation for their labor and Bett became the First Black American Woman To Be Recognized As A Legal Person And Set Free under the Massachusetts State Constitution. Although this victory was a lower court decision with very limited influence, the case was a serious blow to slavery in Massachusetts.
Open Letter To The Church
LESSON: Personhood Resonates And Registers In Black America
A Lesson We Can Learn From The Case Of Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett)
“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.” — Elizabeth Freedom (Mum Bett) 16
Emilie Piper – Mumbet – Story of Elizabeth Freeman
Clearly, Bett understood what it’s like not to be a legal person in the American colonies and would rather live a single minute free and die, than live her life as a slave. 17 The fight for personhood is found everywhere in Black American history. Personhood strikes a chord that runs deep in the experiences of Black Americans. The wholly heartfelt desire for Personhood strikes a chord that rings so true and runs so deep in my people that it can even be found in the souls of those who have been violently subjected to slavery since the American Colony of Virginia’s “Hereditary Slave Law” of 1661. The reality is Personhood resonates in the heart, registers in the mind, generates soul searching conversation and has the power to reconcile the very strained relationship between the Pro-Life movement and communities of color. In Black America, Personhood speaks to the need to have the words “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” apply to all human life and not just some human life.
The Book Cover: One Minute A Free Woman
Today, Alveda King, daughter of A.D. King and niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. says: “The cause of personhood is the final chapter of the civil rights movement. 18 And each person who’s spared because of it will receive a priceless gift — the chance to write the chapters of his or her own life story.” Certainly, Bett received this gift from her freedom suit and wrote the last chapters of her life as a free woman. While Bett’s real age is not known, her tombstone estimates that she died at the age of eight-five (85). As such, in December of 1829 Elizabet Freeman (Mum Bett) was buried in the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Her tombstone, inscription reads as follows:
Elizabeth Freeman’s (Mum Bett) Tombstone
“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.” 19
Could it be that victory for the Pro-Life movement will come only when we all work together, hand in hand, as brothers and sisters in the body of Christ? Could it be that victory will only come when there is room at the table and provision made for strategies like Personhood? Could it be that victory in the fight to end abortion on demand anywhere and everywhere it exists in the world, cannot be realized without leadership from members within communities of color? Could it be that victory in the public square, from the righteous reign of Christ on the hearts and minds of men and women, will not come until His Body lives out the reality that “she is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state?”