She laid the groundwork for the abolition of slavery in the state!
Elizabeth Freeman was born “Mum Bett” in Claverack, Columbia County, New York, her birthdate believed to be somewhere in 1744, the National Women’s History Museum reports. Enslaved at birth, she grew up on the plantation of Pieter Hogeboom alongside her younger sister, Lizzie. Later, when Hogeboom’s daughter married Colonel John Ashley, Bett and Lizzie were both gifted to the new couple.
While there, Bettt experienced horrific treatment at the hands of Mrs. Ashley. She also gave birth to her first daughter whose father’s identity is unknown. And although she couldn’t read or write, Bett had wits about her that served as an advantage. One day, while trying to protect her sister from the wrath of Mrs. Ashley, Bett’s blocked a heated kitchen shovel from hitting Lizzie, leaving her with a nasty arm wound that Bett’s decided to keep visible as proof of her ill treatment under the Ashleys’ care.
In January 1773, while Colonel Ashley was serving as judge of the Berkshire Court of Common Pleas, he helped moderate the committee that drafted the Sheffield Declaration. The declaration was approved on January 12, 1773 and set the precedent for later documents like the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. In the Sheffield Declaration, it stated that “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.”
Reports suggest that it is likely that Bett got wind of this declaration, possibly overhearing it during a meeting hosted by Colonel Ashley at his home or while it was being read aloud during the public square. Adamant about gaining her freedom, she used the drafting of this new declaration in service of that goal, enlisting the help of prominent attorney Theodore Sedgwick, who had also helped draft the document along with Colonel Ashley. While Sedgwick probably looked at the case as a “test case” for the constitutionality of slavery under the new Massachusetts Constitution, for Bett, it was an opportunity to legally gain her freedom.
In May of 1781, Sedgwick filed a “writ of replevin” on behalf of Bett and another enslaved man named Brom, with the Berkshire Court. The writ argued that Bett and Brom were not the Ashleys’ legitimate property and should rightfully be free. Colonel Ashley refused, and the case was elevated to the County Court of Common Pleas of Great Barrington in August 1781 in what became known as Brom and Bett v. Ashley. Sedgwick made the case that the new Massachusetts Constitution technically outlawed slavery and the jury agreed, Bett and Brom receiving their freedom along with 30 shillings and the costs of trial. The case was unprecedented and Bett made history as the first enslaved woman to win what would be called a “freedom suit” in the state of Massachusetts.
The historic win prompted a string of “freedom suits” that would eventually lead the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to outlaw slavery in the state, but Bett was the first. Colonel Ashley attempted to file an appeal with the Supreme Judicial court but later dropped the case, possibly informed by the Quock Walker trials that declared slavery unconstitutional under the new Massachusetts Constitution. Once she was free, Bett changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman and while Colonel Ashley petitioned her to return multiple times as a paid servant, she refused.
Instead, Freeman found domestic work in the home of Sedgwick, becoming a midwife, nurse and local healer. She worked in Sedgwick’s home for two decades before saving enough to buy her own home where she lived out the rest of her life with her children. Elizabeth Freeman passed away on December 28, 1829 at around 85 years old and became the only non-biological member of the Sedgwick family to be buried on their family plot in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
In 1974, the Elizabeth Freeman Center was established to help people experiencing domestic and/or sexual violence in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. They offer free and confidential services while focusing on advocacy and education.
We thank Ms. Freeman for her bravery and courage. Because of her, we can!
Meet Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman, the first enslaved woman to win a freedom suit in Massachusetts/Photo Courtesy of Elizabeth Freeman Center