Each year when Black History Month rolls around, I think about what a shame it is that so few Americans know the story of Mum Bett. Hers is a story that should be celebrated and should most certainly be taught in our schools. Here is a re-post of a piece I wrote about Mum Bett 9 years ago for The Junto Society I thought you might like to read. I hope you enjoy it.
“Anytime , anytime 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 one minute, I would have taken it – just to stand one minute, I would have taken it just to stand one minute on God’s earth a free woman – I would.”
*Author’s note* The Junto Society founder of the month is reserved for the men and women who shaped the foundation of America. Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Statesmen, Revolutionary War figures and the like. Mum Bett may have had nothing to do with the founding of America, but she would set the course in motion that would eventually end slavery in the United States. Such being the case, in honor of Black History month, the Junto Society is proud to proclaim Mum Bett, the Junto Society February 2003 Founder of the Month.
In 1781, a black slave woman named Mum Bett, having heard a good deal of talk about the “rights of man,” walked out of her master’s house in western Massachusetts, to find a lawyer to represent her. She wanted to sue for her right to live free. After finding a lawyer, she was asked what had put such an extraordinary idea into her head. After being satisfied with her answer, the lawyer agreed to take the case. What ensued is now a reminder of the fact that slavery existed, even in the cradle of abolitionism, and it is a testament to the inspiration which can be derived from revolutionary ideas. Even more fascinating, is that a single slave woman would endeavor to challenge her right for freedom without the support of the masses.
Though Mum Bett would hardly be considered a founder of the United States, the argument can certainly be made that she founded the civil rights movement, which has certainly played an integral part in our nation’s history. Historians have tended to overlook the historical contributions by this woman, who would later change her name to Elizabeth Freeman.
Prior to the American Revolution, slavery extended throughout the colonies. Though primarily in the south, even in New England, slavery existed on a limited basis. There were household slaves in Boston who mostly served such positions as coach drivers, cooks and house maids.
It is well documented that slaves in Massachusetts enjoyed a much kinder existence than their southern counterparts. Mostly, the northern slaves were treated with almost parental kindness. They were incorporated into the family, however, just as some parents are strict disciplinarians, some masters and mistresses dealt punishment with a heavy hand. Such appears to have been the case with Mum Bett.
As there is a lack of definitive records on the life of Mum Bett, much is left to assumption and educated guesses. Such is the case of the matter of the birth of Mum Bett. The exact year and place of birth are not known, but it is widely held that Mum Bett was born in or around the Massachusetts colony, somewhere between the years 1742 and 1748. It is known that Mum Bett was born to African parents and was owned by a Dutchman named Pieter Hogeboom. Bett, as she was known as a child, and her sister Lizzie, grew up as slave children in Claverack, New York, some 20 miles south of Albany.
Lizzie was slight, and accounts indicate she may have even been mildly retarded. She is referred to in the writings of Miss Catherine Maria Sedgwick, youngest daughter of Theodore and Pamela Sedgwick, as “a sickly timid creature, over whom Bett watched as a lioness over her cubs.” Bett, to the contrary, is recorded as being of “brawny stature.”
The year is not known, but at some point, Bett and Lizzie were acquired by Col. John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, who had married Mr. Hogeboom’s youngest daughter, Hannah. John Ashley was the son of one of the original proprietors permitted by the General Court of Massachusetts to organize settlements along the Housatonic River. The slave children may have come to live with the Ashley’s in 1758, when Hannah Ashley’s father died.
John Ashley was an important figure in Sheffield, the largest settlement in Western Massachusetts, which would later become Berkshire County. In 1761, Col. Ashley was appointed judge of the Court of Common Pleas, a post he voluntarily resigned some twenty years later when Bett’s case came before that court. John Ashley was an honorable man and known to have been the ‘gentlest, most benign of men.’ Hannah Ashley, on the other hand, was a shrew. Miss Sedgwick wrote, “He was the kindest of masters, to his slaves; she, the most despotic of mistresses.”
It appears a particularly violent display of Hannah Ashley’s temper set events into motion that would eventually lead to Mum Betts historic lawsuit for freedom. Henry Dwight Sedgwick, one of Theodore Sedgwick’s (Mum Bett’s lawyer) ten children, recalled the episode:
Historians dispute the chronology of events, but about the same time as the violent outburst by Hannah Ashley, Mum Bett had began paying particularly close attention to meetings which were being held in the Ashley home. Colonel Ashley had been appointed chairman of a committee that was assigned to “take into consideration the grievances which Americans in general and inhabitants of this Province in particular labor under.”
In January of 1773, in the home of Col. Ashley, a meeting of that committee was most likely the turning point in the life of Mum Bett. The committee’s clerk was Theodore Sedgwick, a twenty six year old Great Barrington lawyer who was practicing in the town of Sheffield. The meeting lasted several hours, during which time, Mum Bett served refreshments and obviously, listened in to the conversation at hand.
The final results of that meeting in the Ashley home became known as the Sheffield Declaration. While giving due respect to the crown, it contained a resolution that read; “Resolved 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.” Mum Bett had never read the writing of John Locke or of any other, for she could not read or write, but she could listen and undoubtedly listened quite intently as this document was discussed and drafted.
Seven years later, in 1780, Mum Bett would add to her repertoire of words when she would hear the reading of the Massachusetts Constitution and the First Article of the Declaration of Rights of the new Constitution. It reads “all men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and inalienable rights…” Thus making the Sheffield Declaration and the Declaration of Independence the laws of the state and county in which Mum Bett lived and worked. It is commonly thought that at about this time, Hannah Ashley launched her assault on Mum Bett and Lizzie.
Many historians believe Mum Bett left the Ashley home and filed her lawsuit immediately after the attack, but the memoirs of Miss Sedgwick would indicate that is not correct. She recalled the words of Mum Bett, “Madam never again laid a hand on Lizzie. 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 – ‘Why Betty! What ails your arm?’ I only answered – ‘ask madam.”
SUEING FOR FREEDOM
Though the exact details will never be known, it is certain there were a combination of events which led to the slave woman taking unheard of measures to procure her freedom. Her simpleton sister had been assaulted by a shrew of mistress. Mum Bett herself had been widowed by the American War for Independence, but had a young daughter by her late husband. She had witnessed the debate and drafting of the Sheffield Declaration and had just recently chanced to be present for a public reading at the Sheffield Meeting House of the newly adopted Declaration of Independence.
When Mum Bett sought the counsel of Theodore Sedgwick, the young Sheffield lawyer’s response came in the form of a question. What had put such notions in Mum Bett’s head? The illiterate slave woman explained that she wished to question the legality of her slave status under the laws of the state of Massachusetts. She went on to explain that the Bill of Rights said that all were born free and equal and that, as she was not a dumb critter, she was certainly one of the nation, especially when her own husband had given his life to help free that nation. Sedgwick, the lawyer and future Senator, ask how she had come to know of such things, Mum Bett replied, “By keepin’ still and minding things.”
Like Col. Ashley, Theodore Sedgwick was an honorable man. He was thirty-four years old and had seen action in the Revolutionary War. In 1780, he had been elected to the first General Court held under the new state constitution. Though he and Col. Ashley were friends, he readily accepted the pleas and logic of Mum Bett and told her he would take the case. He set about inaugurating her suit against one Colonel John Ashley, wealthy landowner, merchant, and slaveholder by filing at least two writs of replevin(1) stating that the Ashley’s were illegally detaining Mum Bett and her sister Lizzie. Sometime prior to the case going to court, another Ashley slave by the name of Brom joined in the suit and his name was added to the writ. Another writ of replevin is known to have been sent to John Ashley Jr., who may have been Brom’s owner. There is virtually no other recorded information pertaining to Brom, other than he was named co-plaintiff in the case of Brom and Bett vs. Ashley. He is described simply as “a Negro man of Sheffield” and a “Labourer.”
The case of Brom and Bett vs. Ashley was heard in August of 1781 before the County Court of Pleas in Great Barrington. Theodore Sedgwick was joined in plaintiff’s counsel by Tapping Reeve, the distinguished lawyer from Litchfield, Connecticut, who later founded the Litchfield Law School. Both men were intrigued by the conspicuous logic of slavery at a time when the young nation had so recently declared its freedom. Both men also went on to champion the case of abolition. The Ashley’s were represented by David Noble, who later became a judge, and John Canfield, a respected lawyer from Sharon, Connecticut.
Noble and Canfield argued that the Negroes were his legal servants for life, but plaintiff’s counsel countered 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 that such laws, even if they had existed, were annulled by the new Constitution.” The plaintiff’s won the decision of the Court, thereby winning their freedom. The jury of “Jonathan Holcomb Foreman and His Fellows” found that the plaintiff’s had been illegally detained in servitude by the Ashley’s and assessed damages of thirty shillings against the defendants. The jury also ordered Ashley to pay all court costs, amounting to five pounds, fourteen shillings and four pence. Mum Bett was awarded compensation from the time she was believed to be twenty one years of age. Colonel Ashley filed an appeal, but later withdrew it.
The case of Brom and Bett vs. Ashley was the first practical construction in Massachusetts of the declaration which has served for the black race, a constitutional abstraction, declaring a state constitutional provision as inconsistent with the institution of slavery, and upon this decision was eventually based the freedom of the few remaining slaves in Massachusetts. It is unknown what effect, if any, the case had on the friendship between Ashley and Sedgwick.
Following the case, Mum Bett declined an offer by Colonel Ashley to return to the Ashley home and work for wages. She chose instead to move into the Sedgwick home, where she worked several years as a nurse and housekeeper. She took upon the surname “Freeman” and Mum Bett, the former slave, became officially, Elizabeth Freeman. She was still employed with the Sedgwick’s in 1785 when they relocated to the town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
Immediately following the Revolutionary War, many envisioned a life free from government obligations. There was a vast bit of resistance to the notion that the young nation had incurred a great deal of debt in the pursuit of its freedom. When the state government of Massachusetts levied taxes upon its citizens, disorder prevailed, particularly throughout the western counties of the state. A man named Daniel Shays led an uprising that would later be dignified as ‘Shays Rebellion.’ A few skirmishes ensued and even a few encounters which would be called battles, but overall, it was mostly a bloodless conflict.
At the onset of the Shays Rebellion, Theodore Sedgwick was a member of the state legislature and was away from his Stockbridge home, tending his duties in Boston. By now, Mum Bett had more or less become the matriarch of the Sedgwick home.
A band of marauding insurgents invaded the Sedgwick home in the winter of 1787. Knowing of this possibility beforehand, Mum Bett had secretly hidden the family’s jewels, silver and other valuables in her own trunk. When after trampling through the house in search of valuables, the men happened upon her locked chest and demanded the key. She lifted her hands and laughed in scorn.
“Ah! Sam Cooper,” she said, “you and your fellows are no better than I thought you. You call me a wench nigger and you not above rummaging my chest. You will have to break it open to do it!” The remarks shamed the men into leaving the Sedgwick home without further investigation, thus saving the Sedgwick family heirlooms.
Mum Bett eventually left the Sedgwick home and bout her own little house where she lived out her life with her daughter. She continued working, however, as a nurse and midwife and was apparently in high demand. Two years before her death, at the Stockbridge Lyceum, her old friend Theodore Sedgwick urged the complete abolition of slavery in America and Mum Bett as a ‘practical refutation of the imagined superiority of our race to hers.’
With her mark, Elizabeth Mum Bett Freeman signed her last will and testament on October 18, 1829. It alone indicates that she did have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A great grandchild unborn at the time would be, W.E.B. Dubois, one of the founders of the NAACP.
Catherine Sedgwick recalls as she visited Mum Bett in the final days of her life, as she lay stricken with illness, “I felt as awed as if I had entered the presence of Washington. Even protracted suffering and mortal sickness… could not break down her spirit.” Elizabeth Freeman died on December 28, 1829. Her tombstone stands in the Stockbridge Cemetery in the innermost circle of what is known as the “Sedgwick Pie,” next to her friend, Catherine Sedgwick. Her tombstone reads:
Known by the name of Mum-Bett
Died Dec. 28th, 1829
Her supposed age was 85 years.
This epitaph, written by Charles Sedgwick, reads; “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 nor equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a trust, nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of a domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper, and the tenderest friend. Good Mother, farewell.”
(1) A writ of replevin is a form of action taken for the recovery of property.
Sedgwick Society, Slavery in New England – Catherine Marie Sedgwick, http://www.salemstate.edu/imc/sedgwick/slavery.html
Mumbet & Shay’s Rebellion, http://mumbet.com/html/shay.html
In Sneakers and Jeans – Elf Lefferts, http://www.americanprofile.com/issues/20020217/20020217ne_1863.asp
The Story of Mumbet of Ashley Falls and Stockbridge, Massachusetts; from Sheffield, Frontier Town by Lillian E. Preiss
Elizabeth Mumbet Freeman: Unsung Heroine of the Bill of Rights by Adib Rashad
The American Experience, Forbes Publishing, The Slave Who Sued for Freedom – Jon Swan, Originally published in American Heritage 1990.
Mumbet: Folklore and Fact by Arthur Zilversmit – article in Berkshire History, Spring 1971, Vol. 1, No. 1.
Books on Mum Bett
Mumbet : The Life and Times of Elizabeth…
Mumbet : The Life and Times of Elizabeth Freeman : The True Story of a Slave Who Won Her Freedom
(Avisson Young Adult Series) by Mary Wilds
Booklist review – http://www.ala.org/booklist
“In 1781, a black slave, MumBet (aka Elizabeth Freeman), heard the Declaration of Independence read at a town meeting in Sheffield, Massachusetts. The next day she went to a local attorney and asked him to file a lawsuit demanding her freedom. Two years later, MumBet won her lawsuit and became a free woman. Her trial helped set the legal precedents that ended slavery in New England. This brief biography gives the basics of MumBet’s life and describes the troubled times in which she lived. There are tantalizing glimpses of a remarkable woman of action–a woman who dared to defy her cruel mistress and was scarred for life with a red-hot shovel as a result; a woman who foiled looters during Shay’s Rebellion; a woman who made a new life for herself. Young adults will remember MumBet and her passionate outburst: “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.” Bibliography with primary and secondary sources; end notes. Jean Franklin Copyright© 1999, American Library Association. All rights reserved”
This book was published in June 1999 and can be purchased by clicking above on title above for amazon.com or below for barnes and noble.com:
MUMBET : THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ELIZABETH FREEMAN : THE TRUE STORY OF A SLAVE WHO WON HER FREEDOM
Mumbet : The Story of Elizabeth Freeman by Harold W. Felton
Out of Print books you may order through amazon.com network of used book sellers by clicking here:
Monty Rainey is a District Manager working in the self storage industry since 1996 and currently overseeing 13 stores in the San Antonio, TX area. He is also a leadership coach and public speaker. For a free consultation, please contact Monty at 830-743-2139 or visit his website at http://www.montyrainey.com .
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