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Won Her Freedom

This past weekend, Linda and I took a women’s history road trip to the Berkshires. Our destination was Sheffield, Massachusetts, to visit the statue representing Elizabeth Freeman, an enslaved Black woman who sued for her freedom and won in 1781. Linda’s long-ago college roommate, Ann, who lives nearby joined us.

Our first women’s history road trip to western Massachusetts was in August 2012. On the drive to the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum in Adams, where I was scheduled to speak about my book, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed the World, we visited The Mount, a historic house museum and cultural center in Lenox, that was designed and built by the renowned author Edith Wharton, the first woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

On our way home, we made several stops, including one in Stockbridge to visit Elizabeth Freeman’s grave.

It is said that her owner Pieter Hogeboom of Claverack, New York, gave her, at about the age of seven years old, to his daughter Hannah, the wife of John Ashley, a prominent judge, who lived in Sheffield. Known as Bett (also Bet, Betty, Mumbet, Mum-Bett), she worked in the Ashley’s home for about thirty years, during which time she had a daughter, Little Bett.

At a public reading, as was the custom at the time, she heard the words of the newly ratified Massachusetts constitution: “All men are born free and equal . . . .”

Informed and empowered, Bett walked four miles to the home of Theodore Sedgwick, a prominent lawyer. According to an account, Slavery in New England, written by Catharine Maria Sedgwick, a notable and prolific author and Theodore's daughter:

“‘Sir,’ said she, ‘I heard that paper read yesterday, that says, ‘all men are born equal, and that every man has a right to freedom. I am not a dumb critter; won’t the law give me my freedom?’”

Sedgwick agreed to represent her and enlisted the aid of Tapping Reeve, the founder of one of the first law schools in America. In 1781, the all-white- male jury of local farmers ruled in her favor, making her the first Black woman to be set free under the Massachusetts state constitution.

Plus the jury awarded her 30 shillings in damages.

She changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman.

John Ashley tried to entice her back with the offer of wages. Instead Elizabeth Freeman joined the Sedgwick household, working as a nurse and governess to the children (one of whom was Catharine), who called her “Mum-Bett.” In time, she moved into her own house in Stockbridge. Her daughter, grandchildren and great grandchildren lived nearby.

The seven-and-a-half-foot tall bronze statue of Elizabeth Freeman by sculptor Brian Hanlon was dedicated on August 20, 2022

A copy of the judgment freeing her is in her right hand. Her left hand holds a replica of a shovel that represents a “large iron shovel red hot from clearing the stove.” Catharine Maria Sedgwick recounted Mum-Bett’s account of how she received a gaping cut down to her arm bone by blocking “Madam” Ashley’s attempt to strike another enslaved woman with the red-hot shovel. “I had a bad arm all winter, but Madam had the worst of it. I never covered the wound, and when people said to me, before Madam,—‘Why, Betty! What ails your arm?’ I only answered—‘Ask missis!’ Which was the slave and which was the real mistress?”

Elizabeth Freeman died in 1829. She was buried in the Sedgwick’s family plot, which had a circular design dubbed the Sedgwick pie. Catherine Maria Sedgwick ended her account with these words:

“She lies now in the village burial ground, in the

midst of those she loved and blessed; of those who loved and honoured her. The first ray of the sun, that as it rose over the beautiful hills of Berkshire, was welcomed by her vigilant eye, now greets her grave; its last beam falls on the marble inscribed with the following true words:—

“Elizabeth Freeman

(known by the name of Mum-Bett)

died Dec. 28th, 1829

Her supposed age was 85 years.

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 nor equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a truth, now failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial she was the most efficient helper and the tenderest friend. Good mother, farewell!”

“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 the minute, I would have taken it just to stand one minute on God’s earth a free woman—I would.” Elizabeth Freeman

Note: As I written before, I am interested in a landmark’s origin story. William “Smitty” Pignatelli spearheaded the creation of the Elizabeth Freeman Monument. Here is an excerpt from reporter Matt Martinez’s article, “Statue of Elizabeth Freeman in Sheffield Immortalizes the ‘grandmother of the civil rights movement,’ The Berkshire Eagle, August 21, 2022: “I grew up in the Berkshires, but I never knew this story,” says Smitty Pignatelli, who represents Massachusetts’s fourth district in the State House of Representatives. I realized a lot of my colleagues, including African American colleagues, hadn’t heard of her, either.” Pignatelli says. In 2020, the unveiling of a statue honoring Susan B. Anthony at her birthplace in nearby Adams gave him an idea, and he set about raising money for a similar monument to Freeman. I’m not a statue guy, but this felt different,” Pignatelli says. “This is a Black woman, 82 years before emancipation—with the courage she had, she deserves more than a park bench! And we don’t want the next Smitty Pignatelli growing up here not knowing this story.”

Link to Slavery in New England by Catharine Maria Sedgwick

Source: Bentley’s Miscellany, vol. 34, 1853, pp. 417-24

Images (click to enlarge): Ann, Penny, Linda; Elizabeth Freeman Monument by Brian Hanlon; Miniature of Mum Bett, aka Elizabeth Freeman, age 70, watercolor on ivory, painted circa 1812 by Susan Ridley Sedgwick, age 23, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston; Elizabeth Freeman's statue; Elizabeth Freeman's grave.

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