Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman with her daughter Betsy “Little Bett”
Art by Dani Barrett (tumblr, website)
Mum Bett was born to enslaved parents in New York’s Hudson Valley around 1742. At a young age, she was given to the Ashley family of Sheffield, Massachusetts. She remained with the family until about age 40. During that time she married, had a daughter, and lost her husband in the Revolutionary War.
In 1780, Mrs. Ashley tried to hit one of Mum Bett’s relatives with a hot kitchen shovel (some say it was Mum Bett’s sister, others say it was her daughter). Mum Bett blocked the blow, injuring herself, and angrily fled the house. When Mum Bett refused to return, John Ashley went to court to reclaim his property.
Mum Bett was aware of the political changes brought on by the Revolutionary War. John Ashley was a locally prominent businessman, landowner, and patriot. He was among the signers of the Sheffield Resolves, a precursor the Declaration of Independence. Mum Bett had heard the Massachusetts Constitution read aloud and knew it said “all men are born free.” She contacted Theodore Sedgewick, a young lawyer with anti-slavery leanings, and asked for his help to sue for her freedom. Theodore accepted Mum Bett’s case and the case of a man named Brom who was also owned by the Ashleys. Tapping Reeve, found of the US’s first law school, joined Mum Bett’s legal team.
The case of Brom and Bett vs. Ashley was heard in 1781 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Theodore and Tapping argued that including the phrase “all men are born free and equal” in the state constitution effectively abolished slavery in Massachusetts. The jury ruled in favor of Mum Bett and Brom, freeing both. That same summer, Quock Walker sued for his freedom in Worchester, Massachusetts. Like Mum Bett and Brom, Quock was successful.
These cases laid the groundwork for the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts, but no formal law was passed. Instead enslaved people were either freed outright or became indentured servants with limited periods of servitude. Massachusetts formally abolished slavery in 1865 with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.
Mum Bett worked as a paid housekeeper for the Sedgwick family for the rest of her life, eventually buying her own home. During Shay’s Rebellion in 1787, she singlehandedly defended the Sedgwick house against a mob. Mum Bett died in 1829 and she is buried in Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. In 1853, Theodore’s daughter Catherine published an account of Mum Bett’s life, the manuscript draft can be read via the Massachusetts Historical Society.