ELIZABETH FREEMAN AKA MUMBET

Elizabeth Freeman, otherwise known as MumBet, was the first woman to sue the American government for her freedom and WIN. 

Born into slavery in New York around 1744, MumBet was given as a wedding gift to her enslaver’s daughter, Hannah Ashley, and moved to Sheffield, Massachusetts. She remained with the family, giving birth to a daughter, Little Bet, and marrying. Her husband’s name is unknown and it is thought that he lost his life serving in the Revolutionary War. 

In 1780, MumBet intervened when Hannah Ashley moved to strike Bet’s sister, Lizzie, with a hot shovel, protecting her and receiving a deep wound on her own arm. Instead of hiding her injury, MumBet displayed it for all to see, telling those who asked what happened to “ask Missis!”

Hannah’s husband John a judge in the Common Court and chairman of a committee to address grievances of the citizens of Massachusetts. He held a meeting at his home in 1773 where the committee developed the Sheffield Declaration, which included the statement:

“All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”

This statement was included in the newly ratified Massachusetts constitution, which Mumbet heard read aloud in public.

She approached the committee’s clerk, Theodore Sedgwick, who was now an accomplished lawyer and would go on to become a US Senator, saying ”I heard that paper read yesterday, that says, all men are created equal, and that every man has a right to freedom. I'm not a dumb critter; won't the law give me my freedom?"Sedgwick took Bet’s case, along with another slave, Brom. Brom and Bet v Ashley went before the Common Court in August of 1781 where Sedgwick argued that the “free and equal” provision effectively abolished slavery in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court found that slavery was inconsistent with the Massachusetts state constitution. 

Brom and Bet were awarded damages, compensated for their labor and given their freedom. Mumbet became widely known as a skilled healer, nurse and midwife. She went on to work for wages in the household of Theodor Sedgwick. Mumbet defended the Sedgwick home from followers of Shay’s Rebellion who broke in looking for silver and raised Sedgwick’s children, including his daughter Catherine who went on the become and author and wrote about Mumbet’s life. Mumbet moved into her own home once the Sedgwick children were grown, where she died on December 28th, 1829, at the supposed age of 85.

Mumbet’s case set the legal precedent that ended slavery in Massachusetts. 

“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 airth [sic] a free woman— I would.”

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