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BLACK HISTORY MOMENT: ELIZABETH "MUMBET" FREEMAN, THE FIRST BLACK WOMAN TO WIN HER FREEDOM FROM SLAVERY (3669 hits)

In 1781, Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman became the first African-American woman to win her freedom from slavery through a court of law. The case was held in Massachusetts, which coincidentally, became the first state in the Union to abolish slavery; many say that Mumbet’s case is the reason.

Elizabeth Freeman was probably born in 1742, to enslaved African parents in Claverack, New York. At the age of six months she was purchased, along with her sister, by John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, whom she served until she was nearly forty. By then she was known as "Mum Bett," and had a young daughter known as "Little Bett." Her husband had been killed while fighting in the Revolutionary War.

One day, the mistress angrily tried to hit Mum Bett's sister with a heated kitchen shovel. Mum Bett intervened and received the blow instead. Furious, she left the 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 and ultimately led to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts.

After the ruling, despite pleas from Colonel Ashley that she return and work for him for wages, Mum Bett went to work for the Sedgewicks. She stayed with them as their housekeeper for years, eventually setting up house with her daughter. She became a much sought-after nurse and midwife.

Elizabeth Freeman died in 1829, a free woman, surrounded by her children and grandchildren in the free state of Massachusetts that she had helped to create.

The tombstone of Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett), the African American woman whose suit for freedom helped bring about the end of slavery in Massachusetts, can still be seen in the old burial ground of Stockbridge. It 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 or equal. She neither wasted time nor property. 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.

When Elizabeth Freeman was nearly 70 years old, Susan Ridley Sedgewick painted a miniature portrait of her in watercolor on ivory. Sedgewick was the young wife of Theodore Sedgewick, Jr., whose father had represented Freeman in her claim for freedom from slavery under the Bill of Rights and the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Susan Sedgewick, the granddaughter of a New Jersey governor, was a writer of juvenile fiction.

Theodore Sedgwick [was] the 4th great-grandfather of actress Kyra Sedgwick, star of the hit television show, “The Closer” on TNT. The connection was found via the PBS show “Finding Our Roots,” with Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. There is currently an effort underway to immortalize the legacy of Elizabeth Mumbet Freeman on a U.S. postal stamp.

Civil Rights leader and historian W.E.B. Du Bois claimed Freeman as his relative and wrote that she married his maternal great-grandfather, "Jack" Burghardt. But, Freeman was 20 years senior to Burghardt, and no record of such a marriage has been found. It may have been Freeman's daughter, Betsy Humphrey, who married Burghardt after her first husband, Jonah Humphrey, left the area "around 1811", and after Burghardt's first wife died (c. 1810). If so, Freeman would have been Du Bois's step-great-great-grandmother. Anecdotal evidence supports Humphrey's marrying Burghardt; a close relationship of some form is likely.
Posted By: Siebra Muhammad
Wednesday, February 10th 2016 at 9:22PM
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/*
Excellent Posting Sister Siebra! ...We sure could use more like this one! Freedom sure as hell is NOT FREE!

~ "SANKOFA the MAAFA!'

In Peace and Love,

'G'
*/

Wednesday, February 10th 2016 at 10:26PM
Gregory Boulware, Esq.
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