Full Name: Elizabeth Freeman a.k.a. Mum Bett
1742 (approx.) – December 28, 1829
Notable: Abolitionist / Activist
Elizabeth Freeman was born into slavery in Claverack, New York around 1742 and at some point in her life came received the nickname “Mum Bett”. Little to nothing is known about her parents but Freeman had a younger sister, Lizzie. Given that the exact date of Freeman’s birth is unknown, her exact age at the time of certain events is also unclear. But, while still young (within the range of six months to two years old), Freeman’s owner gave her and her sister to his daughter, Hannah. This occurred shortly after Hannah’s marriage to Colonel John Ashley.
Elizabeth would spend most of the next 40 years of her life working in bondage for the Ashley family. During that time she married and had one child, a daughter named Betsy. Her husband’s name is unknown but some sources say that he might have served in but did not return from the American Revolutionary War.
Colonel Ashley was a judge at the Berkshire Court of Common Pleas. He also earned income by owning and operating a farm and mills. Ashley’s vast landholdings comprised the largest farm in the town. And he generated his wealth through the unpaid labor of slaves. Yet, Colonel Ashley was a community leader who supported the colonies’ fight for freedom. He also contributed to the Sheffield Resolves, a local precursor to the Declaration of Independence.
By most accounts, Ashley did not berate or abuse his slaves. But his wife did. In one incident, Elizabeth suffered a serious injury to her arm while trying to defend her sister. Mrs. Ashley had become enraged and picked up a heated shovel to hit Lizzie, striking Elizabeth when she intervened. Elizabeth left the house and refused to return to work.
By 1781, Massachusetts had ratified its state constitution and was fighting in the Revolutionary War. Visitors to the Ashley household discussed current events and the fight against oppression. Out on the streets, Elizabeth also heard the constitution read aloud. There was a great deal of pride exhibited by citizens who were proud to see their colony fighting for freedom.
Though illiterate, Elizabeth Freeman recognized the opportunity at hand and sought out the attorney Theodore Sedgwick to aide in the fight for her freedom. In another instance of hypocrisy, Sedgwick took the case while also being a slave owner. He accepted the case not because he believed that slavery was wrong. But rather in fear that having the community split over slavery was making it harder to remain united in the fight against Britain.
Slavery was legal in Massachusettes but the state also recognized the human rights of the enslaved. Some enslaved people had previously sought to obtain their freedom through the courts. But those cases were usually a result of a slave owner backing out of a promise of freedom or breaking a particular law. In contrast, Elizabeth Freeman was the first enslaved person to use the state’s constitution to argue against the very existence of slavery within its borders.
In August 1781 the case of Brom and Bett v. Ashley began in the Court of Common Pleas. The jury sided with the plaintiffs who received their freedom and monetary damages. Colonel Ashley initially took steps to appeal the decision but eventually withdrew his petition. This case in combination with several others that were filed led to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts.
Following her emancipation, Elizabeth adopted the last name “Freeman”. She went on to work for the Sedgwick family as a paid domestic servant and was able to save her earnings. After several years she was able to buy a house and some land where she spent the rest of her life with her sister, daughter, and other descendants. Elizabeth Freeman passed away on December 28, 1829, and was buried in the Sedgwick family cemetery where her headstone and epitaph can still be viewed.
- Alexander, Kerri Lee. n.d. “Elizabeth Freeman.” National Women’s History Museum. Accessed November 3, 2019. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/elizabeth-freeman.
- “Elizabeth Freeman.” 2019. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. September 22, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Freeman.
- Higgins, Abigail. 2019. “Meet Elizabeth Freeman, the First Enslaved Woman to Sue for Her Freedom-and Win.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. April 3, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/elizabeth-freeman-slavery-case-dred-scott-freedom.
- “Mum Bett.” Rivera, Alicia. 2019. Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. May 14, 2019. https://www.biography.com/activist/mum-bett.2019.
- “Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett) (1742-1829) • BlackPast.” BlackPast. June 30, 2019. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/freeman-elizabeth-mum-bett-1742-1829/.
- “The Legal End of Slavery in Massachusetts.” n.d. Massachusetts Historical Society. Accessed November 3, 2019. https://www.masshist.org/endofslavery/index.php?id=54
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