During the Revolutionary War the African American population were quick on their feet to become involved. This sounds extremely important but unfortunately in the mists of the excitement of the Revolutionary War the voices and the stories of the African Americans were lost. One brave slave in particular is Mum Bet, or Elizabeth Freeman .Once Mum Bett heard talk around the house of colonists gaining freedom she believed she had rights of her own. She was courageous enough to go to court against the woman who attacked her and in return won the case. Thus she became an African American slave woman to win her way out of slavery. Mum Bet has by far one of the most inspiring stories ever told.(1) The story she left has been passed from generation to generation to abolish slavery one step at a time.
Elizabeth Freeman was born around the time of 1742. This means that Mum Bet lived more than 274 years ago and her story is still told. However her long journey to freedom, like most stories, starts from the very beginning.(2) There are a few different stories that would explain how Bett arrived at John Ashley’s house. One suggests that the father of Hannah, her slave owners wife, gave “all of his Negroes and negresses” to his children when he died.When he did die Bett would have been about fourteen, suggesting that was the age she arrived at the Ashleys. Another story explains that Bett was an infant when she came to the house , about six months old. The story describes her as being carried in a straw filled sleigh wrapped in blankets during the winter. Though, one source explains that the baby wrapped in blankets could have been Bett’s younger sister, Lizzie. However, it is unlikely that Bett could have a younger sister if she was just six months old. Some argue that Lizzie was the older sister but, Bett is always shown as “the protector, watching over her as a lioness might watch over her cubs” This description does not sound like one of a younger sister. It is also believed that Lizzie could also have been Bett’s daughter. Bett could have been given to the Ashleys as an infant and had her own child while under the care of the Ashley house. (3)
A lot of information regarding Mumbet is unclear, for example the year she was born. She had no birth certificate and all records including when Bett arrived at the house is under controversy. Bett passed away in 1829 and the Sedgwick family argued that she passed “in her 85th year.” In 1781 she filed for her freedom lawsuit, with the prior information it would mean she was about 37 at that time. This would also mean that she was born in 1744, the estimated year she arrived at the Ashley’s. In Bett’s will she leaves her daughter with “a short gown that was my mother’s.” This could leave one pondering if a master would care to deliver such an important “keepsake”or if it was indeed Bett herself.(4)
Mumbet lived in the Ashley household is Sheffield Massachusetts, and the master of the house was John Ashley. Ashley was a very wealthy man who built his own house in 1735. When he died his accumulative amount of acres was 3,000. In comparison, 3,000 acres is about 3,000 American length football fields.(5) John was a very well respected son of one of the town's founders. He graduated from Yale and became a lawyer. He owned his own mill and was a moderator at town meetings. He could also be classified as a ,merchant judge,justice of the peace, and huge representative for the Massachusetts General Court. “By all means he was a man without enemies.” While he increased his riches he also managed to stay well liked. Ashley was a great business man for he was the person who fronted the Sheffield riverfront grist mill and “had interests in iron mines and quarries.” Ashley also owned a lot of land mostly in the Housatonic river valley. Ashley was born December 2nd 1709 and was known as a household name in Sheffield Massachusetts. He served in many town meetings and “Sheffield people did not scarcely do anything without Ashley’s having a hand in it.” (6) This paints the picture that John Ashley was a powerful man in Sheffield Massachusetts.
The event that lit the spark for Mum Bett’s anger happened while she was a slave for the Ashley family. Hannah Ashley's short temper led her to raise a hot shovel to Lizzie because she had gone into the kitchen for extra food and stole some crumbs.Bett jumped in front of the way before Betts sister was scorched but unfortunately Bett took the fall leaving her with a scar on the left side of her face. This scar would stay on her face for the rest of her life and later become a symbol of strength.Mum Bett was “overhearing dinner table conversations in the Ashley home about the new promises of liberty made in the Sheffield Declaration (1773), the Declaration of Independence (1776), and the Massachusetts Constitution (1780).” (7) One quote that really stood out to Bett was “All men are born free and equal” from the Declaration of Independence . She assumed that this law included her. She later ordered the help of Theodore Sedgwick, a famous lawyer to help her in her court case against the Ashley's. (8)This was the first step in Betts journey to freedom.
One of the men who contributed in the document John Ashley led ,Theodore Sedgwick , was Mum Betts key to unlocking freedom. Theodore was a local attorney who frequently visited the Ashley home to talk about the Sheffield Declaration.(9) Theodore Sedgwick “served in elected state government and as a Delegate to the Continental Congress, a U.S. Representative, and a United States Senator from Massachusetts. He served as the fourth Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. He was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1802 and served there the rest of his life.” (10)However, Bett likely chose Theodore for this because of his kindness. He was a family man ,father of 10, who cared for his sick wife with his busy schedule. However, it is unclear why Sedgwick agreed to the case since he was a friend of John Ashley and under the circumstances it was a risky case to commit to. Most historians agree that he wanted to end the “constitutional challenge of slavery” even though he had slaves of his own, it could have been that Bett’s case was just a flat out winner. When Ashley refused to release Bett local authorities tried to free her but could not get away from the eyes of Ashley. John also tried to dismiss this case because he assumed that Bett was indeed a “legal Negro Servant of the said John Ashley”. Sedgwick later agreed with his mentor that “no antecedent law had abolished slavery, and the laws that 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 head of the jury, Jonathan Holcomb, took very little time to agree with their claims. Ashley appealed but would later drop the case and pay for the court trial. It is apparent that this case influenced Quok Walker to demand freedom as the Mumbet case was around the same time as his plead.(11)
Throughout the next few years Mum Bett lived with the Sedgwick family and changed her name to “Elizabeth Freeman”. The reason her name was changed to Freeman is unknown. However, male slaves that won their freedom fighting in the Revolutionary War were famous for having their names changed to “Freeman”.(12) The stories of Lizzie after the court trial have vanished in history.Though, in the Sedgwick household Bett worked as a domestic servant for many years. Pamela Dwight Sedgwick had a developmental delay or a case of depression. Since Theodore traveled so much it was Bett who took care of his mother. “Mumbet was the only person who could tranquilize my mother when her mind was disordered - the only one of her friends she looked to have about her - and why?” ,wrote Catherine Sedgwick. (13) After many years in the Sedgwick household, she raised up enough money to buy her own house.(14) In her will she left an estate of $1,000, also suggesting she got a place of her own. Bett is known to have had a husband who won his freedom by fighting in the revolutionary war, but would later die soon after. There was some talk of a second marriage but the Sedgwicks have zero account of one and actually say that she remained a widow for the rest of her life(15).
As Bett aged her family was a huge part of her life. She was surrounded by her daughter,grandchildren and great-grandchildren.(16) Bett is remembered to have lived a very comfortable life for herself upon death. The actual cause of Betts death is unknown however she did die in her mid 80’s on December 28,1829. Freeman was buried in the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge. Her actual grave lies in the center on the family burial ground, hinting that Freeman had a huge influence on all of the Sedgwick family.(17) To back up this theory, Theodore's son Charles wrote “She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly 30 years. She could neither read nor write, yet in her own sphere she had no superior or equal. 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” (18)When Mum Bett died she left a will for her family. To her daughter she left her household furniture and generously gave Charles Sedgwick all of her real estate. “It is my will and intention that one undivided half of said real Estate should be held by the said Charles for the sole use and benefit of my daughter Elizabeth & her heirs & the other half for the use & benefit of my Great Grandchildren Amos Josiah Van Schaack & Lydia Maria Ann Van Schaack & their heirs . . .”(19) From then on the Sedgwick family wrote many essays about MumBett on how she was a huge part of her life, especially Pamela Sedgwick.
Mum Bett’s legacy was carried on to future generations who would then pass it on the the next. All her life her determination rang and warmed the hearts of many around her. Betts most influential quote reads “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.” She said this to Catherine Freeman who had interviewed Bett before she passed. Over a century later,her great grandson W.E.B was an influential writer on the awful impact racism had on American society. Not only this but W.E.B. the first black male to achieve a doctoral degree from Harvard University,he followed in Bett’s footsteps as one to change history. (20)
Young historians can now visit the Ashley house “We want to ensure that future generations understand, on a human level, the story of slavery and the bravery required to bring the story to the forefront,” Workers at the house explain that Betts story is a “part of the revolutionary era struggle for Freedom.”. This house has exhibits that tell the story of Betts life and included a copy of her will ,testament ,and Sheffield Declaration. This house is known for telling two different stories.It tells the story of the Ashley family who were huge social influences to Massachusetts and the story in the inspiring Mumbet, who left positive story about breaking boundaries for the world to hear.On August 14th the house held a “Elizabeth Freeman day” to commemorate her life and Freedom.(21)