Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman
The Slave Who Sued for her Freedom
By Anne Adams
When Theodore Sedgwick brought the case of Bett & Brom Vs. Ashley in a Massachusetts court in 1781 it would be a momentous suit, not just because of the litigants but also for the issue it raised. Momentous because “Bett” and “Brom” were slaves, suing for their freedom and all because Bet wanted to experience the freedom she had heard so much about.
Elizabeth Freeman – also known as “Bet” or “Mammy Bett” or more frequently “Mumbet” – was born into slavery, the property of a New York man named Pieter Hogeboom. She was born in 1742. Or 1732. Or 1751. The date was uncertain because no one considered it important to record the birth of a slave child. In Bet’s case the only clue to her actual age was that when she died in 1829 her tombstone noted that she was “about 85” and that she had been a slave “for nearly 30 years.”
At Hogeboom’s death in 1758, Bet and her younger sister Lizzy were transferred to the ownership of John Ashley, Hogeboom a son-in-law. Their new home was in Sheffield, Massachusetts and there the children grew up and Bet married another Ashley servant. Her husband joined the Continental army to fight in the American Revolution, and was killed in combat, leaving Bet a widow with a small child.
Back at home, Ashley was known as a kind master but Mrs. Ashley was a small-minded bully who beat her servants for the slightest infraction. Once when she caught Lizzie nibbling at some leftover bread dough, she accused the youngster of “stealing” food, then grabbed a hot fireplace tool and swung it at her. Bet sprang forward to block the coming blow and the shovel smashed into her arm. She bore the scar for the rest of her life.
Under such harsh punishment some slaves would have run away, but Bet did not and that meant she was in the right place at the right time to hear what would change her life.
For several years new ideas of freedom of the individual were circulating in the American colonies and as a prominent and influential community leader, Col. Ashley took an interest and then a major role in the implementation of these new concepts.
In 1773 he was the chairman of a committee that drew up what became known as the Sheffield Declaration. It declared: “Mankind in a state of nature are equal, free, and independent of each other, and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty and property.” One of the committee that met in the Ashley home was a young lawyer named Theodore Sedgwick.
Yet as they met in the Ashley home there was someone not on the committee who listened carefully. Whether serving food or drinks in the background or listening from behind the kitchen door, Bet could not ignore her inward pining for the freedom that she heard about. She renewed her interest when several years later the Ashley home was again the center of discussion about the ratification of the new Massachusetts Constitution in 1780. Again she hard the words: ”all men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and inalienable rights. …” and the familiar longings arose again. Freedom? Could that apply to her? Surely Col. Ashley would know.
When confronted with his servant’s question, Ashley was perhaps surprised, but he responded gently. No, he told her, all that talk about freedom didn’t apply to slaves.
Perhaps torn between her respect for her master, and her own longings, Bet could not reconcile them. Though she admired and respected Ashley, the idea of freedom was haunting. She’d heard that the soldiers in the Continental Army fighting in the Revolution – like her husband – were fighting and even dying for freedom, so didn’t that mean that she could be free? It was certainly a puzzle and Bet wanted an answer.
So she packed her few belongings, and clutching her child, left the Ashley home and appeared on the doorstep of Theodore Sedgwick with her question.
Why couldn’t she be free? How could a state that proclaimed, “All men are born free and equal” allow slavery, a condition totally contrary to the concept of freedom. Sedgwick came to believe it was worth pursuing. He agreed to take her case and to file a lawsuit to secure her freedom.
Actually a few slaves had sued for their freedom but these were based on personal situations. For example, in one case the slave had attained freedom because his mother had been born free and in another the master had promised freedom but reneged. However, Sedgwick planned a suit that was would challenge the legality of slavery itself.
The new state constitution that had declared freedom and equality for its citizens had only been in effect a few months when Sedgwick filed against his friend Ashley a “writ of replevin,” a legal devise used to recover property, in this case Bet. Ashley refused to release the “property” and the case went to trial in August, 1781.
Naturally, Ashley, supported by other slave owning friends, retained the best counsel he could but he was fighting against popular opinion since slavery was becoming unpopular. A later writer who had visited with Sedgwick outlined in his book the basis of the legal strategy in the case. It had under two points: “’(1) That no antecedent law had established slavery, and that the laws which seemed to suppose it were the offspring of error in the legislators …’ and (2) That such laws, even if they had existed, were annulled by the new Constitution.’”
The jury found for Sedgwick’s clients and Bet and Brom, another slave who was included in the suit, were set free. Also, Ashley was ordered to pay each 30 shillings plus court costs.
Though this particular case affected only Bet and Brom, it was the beginning of the end for a system of slavery in Massachusetts.
Though what happened to Brom is unknown, after the victory, Bet declined to return to the Ashley household to work for wages, and instead entered Sedgwick’s employ. She changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman and settled in to assist with the Sedgwick children as well as nursing their mother who struggled with physical and mental illness. Daughter Catherine, who became a well-known novelist and educator and who reportedly dubbed the servant “Mumbet”, wrote of her nurse:
“One should of known this remarkable woman, the native majesty of her deportment: Mumbet was the only person who could tranquilize my mother when her mind was disordered – the only one of her friends whom she liked to have about her…”
Besides being a caring and devoted caregiver for the Sedgwick children and their mother, Bet proved a courageous family defender. During the 1785 Shays’ Rebellion intruders broke into the home while Sedgwick was away. Bet hid the family silver in her own chest of drawers, and then courageously showed the men throughout the house as they searched for valuables. When they came to her chest, she identified it as her property, and urged them to search it, with the sarcastic implication that naturally there’d be valuables in a receptacle owned by a black servant. They left empty-handed and the family valuables were saved.
When Bet retired she bought her own home and continued to work locally as a nurse and midwife. With her children and grandchildren around her, she died in December, 1829 and was buried in the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge. Her tombstone read: “ELIZABETH FREEMAN, known by the name of MUMBET. She could neither read nor write, yet in her own sphere she had no superior nor 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.”
(One interesting aspect of Bet’s life was how her intense desire of freedom became a family tradition. Her great grandson was W.E.B. DuBois, who was a major civil rights activist in the 20th century.)
Catherine Sedgwick’s article “Slavery in New England”, written in the 1850s, recounted Bet’s explanation of the meaning of personal freedom: “Anytime I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told that 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.”
Anne Adams, a freelance writer living in Houston, Texas, is the author of a new e-book “First of All, a Wife: Sketches of American First Ladies,” available from pcpublications.org. She has published in Christian and secular publications, taught history on the junior college level, and spoken at national and local writers’ conferences.