The exact date of Elizabeth Freeman’s birth remains uncertain, but what is incontestably true is she was the first Black woman in the state of Massachusetts to file a lawsuit for freedom.
Born into slavery (1742-’44?) in Claverack, Columbia County, New York, Elizabeth was best known as Mum Bett, and grew up the plantation of Pieter Hogeboom. When Hogeboom’s daughter married Colonel John Ashley, Bett and her sister Lizzie, were a gift to the couple.
During this period of enslavement, Bett gave birth to a daughter whose father was unknown. With no formal education, virtually illiterate, she was left to get by on wit and her native abilities. Once during an encounter in which she stepped in to protect her sister from a violent attack by their mistress, Bett was struck and the wound to her arm never healed completely. This was just one excruciating example of Mrs. Ashley’s cruelty.
The cruelty she and her sister received was a motivating factor for Bett to seek relief from bondage from a master and mistress of wealth and prominence. Colonel Ashley was a judge who helped to moderate a committee that drafted the Sheffield Declaration, which declared in 1773 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,” that stood in stark contradiction to her status and treatment. She learned of the document’s text, which resonated much like those composed by Thomas Jefferson three years later, from hearsay and the common discussion it received since she was unable to read it.
Those words had meaning for Bett and she soon contacted attorney Theodore Sedgwick (father of author Catherine Sedgewick), who worked with Colonel Ashley on the declaration, hoping he could help her gain freedom. That process was aided and abetted by an enslaved man named Brom. This became one of several test cases to determine if slavery was constitutional under the Massachusetts declaration. In fact, Bett began her process less than a year after the constitution had been adopted. And her case would be the instigation of a flood of lawsuits in the state. It would give impetus to the state’s abolition of slavery in the state.
Central to Bett and Brom’s 1781 lawsuit, agreed on by the court, was that they were not Colonel Ashley’s property, but he refused to release them. Their attorney argued that slavery had been outlawed in the state, and the jury agreed. Both were given their freedom and an award of 30 shillings and the costs of the trial. Almost immediately, Colonel Ashley filed an appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court, but several months later dropped it.
No discussion of Bett’s lawsuit can be done without mention of Quock Walker v. Jennison. According to A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. in his book “In the Matter of Color, Race & the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period,” the Quock Walker case “was a mortal wound to slavery in Massachusetts.” In 1781, about the same time as Bett’s litigation, Quock Walker began his case after escaping from his owner Nathaniel Jennison. When he was accosted by Jennison he was severely beaten and brought back to the Jennison farm. Walker sued Jennison for assault and battery, and secured the services of Levi Lincoln, one of the most able attorneys in the state.
During the trial, and in his defense, Jennison produced a bill of sale as proof that he owned Walker and was thus entitled to discipline him. The jury found that Walker was a free man and not property. Walker was awarded 50 pounds in damages. “Though Jennison appealed,” Higginbotham wrote, “…he failed to appear when the case was called for argument and the lower court’s decision was affirmed.” This case, in many respects was extended, but it is considered the primary source for ending slavery in the state, though Higginbotham gives no mention of Bett and her case.
Upon receiving her freedom, Bett changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman. Her former master asked her on several occasions to return to his home as a paid servant, but Elizabeth declined the offers. Instead, she became a paid domestic worker in her attorney’s home. Later she acquired a reputation as a highly respected healer, nurse and midwife. She was so successful in these endeavors that after 20 years of saving was able to purchase her own home where she lived with her children.
She died Dec. 28, 1829, at about 85 years of age, and is buried in the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge, Mass.