Elizabeth Freeman, in early life known as Bett and later Mum Bett 1742 – December 28, 1829), was among the first black slaves in Massachusetts to file a FREEDOM SUIT and WON in court under the 1780 constitution, with a ruling that slavery was illegal. Her county court case, Brom and Bett v. Ashley, decided in August 1781, was cited as a precedent in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court appeal review of Quock Walker’s “freedom suit”. When the state Supreme Court upheld Walker’s freedom under the constitution, the ruling was considered to have informally ended slavery in the state.
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 Earth a free woman— I would.
Elizabeth Freeman was illiterate and left no written records of her life. Her early history has been pieced together from the writings of contemporaries to whom she told her story or who heard it indirectly, as well as from historical records.
Freeman was born into slavery about 1742 at the farm of Pieter Hogeboom in Claverack, New York, where she was given the name Bett. When his daughter Hannah married John Ashley of Sheffelield, Massachusetts, Hogeboom gave Bett, then in her early teens, to them. She remained with them until 1781, during which time she married and had a child, Betsy. Her husband (name unknown, marriage unrecorded) never returned from service in the Revolutionary War.
Throughout her life, Bett exhibited a strong spirit and sense of self. She came into conflict with Hannah Ashley, who was raised in the strict Dutch culture of the New York colony. In 1780, Bett prevented Hannah from striking her daughter Betsywith a heated shovel, but Elizabeth shielded her daughter and received a deep wound in her arm. As the wound healed, Bett left it uncovered as evidence of her harsh treatment. Catharine Maria Sedgwick quotes Elizabeth saying, “Madam never again laid her hand on Lizzy. 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!’ Which was the slave and which was the real misses?”
John Ashley was a Yale-educated lawyer, wealthy landowner, businessman and leader in the community. His house was the site of many political discussions and the probable location of the signing of the Sheffield Resolves, which predated the Declaration of Independence.Soon after the Revolutionary War, Freeman heard the constitution read at Sheffield and these words: 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.
Massachusetts Constitution Article 1.
Elizabeth Freeman (Bett) sought the counsel of Theordore Sedgwick, a young abolition -minded lawyer, to help her sue for freedom in court. She told him, “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?” Sedgwick willingly accepted her case, as well as that of Brom, another of Ashley’s slaves. He enlisted the aid of Tapping Reeve, the founder of America’s first law school, located at Litchfield,Connecticut. The case of Brom and Bett vs. Ashley was heard in August 1781 before the County Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington.
Sedgwick and Reeve asserted that the constitutional provision that “All men are born free and equal” effectively abolished slavery in the state. When the jury ruled in Bett’s favor, she became the first African-American woman to be set free under the Massachusetts state constitution. The jury found that “…Brom & Bett are not, nor were they at the time of the purchase of the original writ the legal Negro of the said John Ashley…” The court assessed damages of thirty shillings and awarded both plaintiffs compensation for their labor. After the ruling, Bett took the names Elizabeth Freeman. Although Ashley asked her to return to his house and work for wages, she chose to work in her attorney Sedgwick’s household. She worked for his family until 1808 as senior servant and governess to the Sedgwick children, who called her “Mum Bett”. Also working at the Sedgwick household during much of this time was Agrippa Hull, a free black who had served for years during the Revolutionary War.
The Sedgwick children included Catherine Sedgwick, who became a well-known author and wrote an account of her governess’ life. 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 Freeman’s real age was never known, but an estimate on her tombstone puts her age at about 85. She died in December 1829 and was buried in the Sedgwick Family Plot in Stockbridge Massachusetts. They provided a tombstone, inscribed as follows:
ELIZABETH FREEMAN, known by the name of MUMBETT 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.
She left behind this legacy of truth which is forever which is The decision in the case of Elizabeth Freeman was cited as precedent when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard the appeal of Quock Walker v. Jennison and Walker’s freedom was upheld. These cases set the legal precedents that ended slavery in Massachusetts. Vermont had already abolished it explicitly in its constitution.