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Elizabeth Freeman or “Mum Bett”: c.1742 - 1829

Elizabeth Freeman, in early life known as "Mum Bett", (c.1742 - 1829) was among the first black slaves in United States history to win freedom in court.

Mum Bett was born into slavery at the farm of Pieter Hoogeboom in Claverack, New York. When Pieter died, Mum Bett was left with Pieter's daughter and her husband, John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, and she served with them until 1780. During that time she married and had a child. Her husband was killed in combat during the Revolutionary War. In 1780, Mum Bett prevented her mistress from striking her sister Lizzy with a heated shovel and was struck instead. She immediately left the Ashley house and refused to return. When Colonel Ashley appealed to the law for her return, she called on Theodore Sedgewick, a lawyer from Stockbridge who had anti-slavery sentiments, and asked for his help to sue for her freedom.

Mum Bett had listened carefully while the wealthy men she served talked about the Bill of Rights and the new state constitution, and she decided that if all people were born free and equal, then the laws must apply to her, too. Sedgewick agreed to take the case, which was joined by another of Ashley's slaves, a man called Brom. Brom & Bett v. Ashley was argued before a county court. The jury ruled in favor of Bett and Brom, making them the first enslaved African Americans to be freed under the Massachusetts constitution of 1780, and ordered Ashley to pay them thirty shillings and costs. This municipal case set a precedent that was affirmed by the state courts in the Quock Walker case. These and other land-mark judgments made Massachusetts the first state in the Union to abolish slavery.

After the ruling, John Ashley pleaded with Bett to return to his house and work for wages. Instead, Bett changed her name to Freeman and went to work for the household of her lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick. She remained in his service for a number of years. In later years she was well-known for her skill as a midwife and nurse. As a free woman, she and her daughter also set up a house of their own.



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